In a Pandemic, Data Privacy Goes Out the Window
What you need to know about your privacy as the coronavirus spreads
In most circumstances, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a pretty benign organization. Sure, it gets all the cool toys — Biosafety Level 4 labs, high-powered electron microscopes, and the like. But most of the time, the scope of its activities is limited to such niceties as compiling flu statistics, publishing beautiful scientific images, and reminding you to wash your hands.
During a pandemic like the current coronavirus outbreak, all that changes. The CDC, as well as state public health departments, take on remarkably broad powers. Public health officials can detain you, force you into quarantine, and even search your phone, read your emails, and access your personal data.
To understand the CDC’s authority, it helps to take a brief step back and consider the laws surrounding public health in the United States.
Public health officials can detain you, force you into quarantine, and even search your phone, read your emails, and access your personal data.
Like much of the U.S. legal system, public health law is a tangled web of federal, state, and local regulations. The CDC is a federal agency. That means it gets much of its authority from the U.S. Constitution. That gives the CDC some broad powers. The agency can, for example, quarantine people entering the United States or traveling between states. This was laid out in the 1944 Public Health Service Act. To exercise its authority, the CDC requires an executive order about a specific disease, which then-President Barack Obama gave for coronavirus in 2014 and which was reinforced by an order from President Donald Trump in January.
Beyond that, the CDC can also quarantine and investigate people who are already in the United States. This was established in the same 1944 act, based on the (reasonable) concept that an infectious person could affect citizens in multiple states.
On top of the CDC’s powers, states’ public health authorities have even broader ones. These legal authorities allow state governments to take action…