In a Pandemic, Data Privacy Goes Out the Window

What you need to know about your privacy as the coronavirus spreads

Photo: ATTA KENARE/Getty Images

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.

If people refuse to cooperate, there are ways of forcing them.

In previous pandemics, this was accomplished through a meticulous review of a person’s movements with old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground investigations and interviews. Today — when nearly every American citizen carries a device that leaves a breadcrumb trail tracking their every movement — much of this work could likely be done digitally by mining an infected person’s data.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak & consult about tech, privacy, AI & photography. Dig Deeper: or