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Privacy and COVID

My wife and I have been very careful about “staying within our Bubble,” but it was bound to happen. Someone outside of our small group had encountered someone who tested positive and the “Bubble” began to burst. It made me consider privacy in this time of pandemic.

How the bubble came in contact with COVID

I make no secret that I enjoy playing golf. One of the benefits of living in South Florida is that I can play golf all year. I have a weekly foursome with mostly retired guys who play frequently during the week. These men and their spouses are all “in our Bubble.” We are all equally concerned about COVID, take similar precautions (thank you CDC), and basically, trust that we are all doing the right things.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving another group of men played golf and subsequently, a member of the group (Mr. A) received a positive test result on that Friday. One of the other people who played in this Tuesday group (Mr. B) played golf with my three friends on that Wednesday.

Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday was hosted by one of my three friends and his spouse. We ate outside and were socially distanced. On that Friday I played golf with my three friends (it was a day off, so why not). That evening Mr. B notified all of us of Mr. A’s positive test.

Initial reactions

Naturally, we were all upset. We worked so hard to stay safe and here we have a simple round of golf that could be our undoing. We all wanted information:

  • Is Mr. A someone who lives up north and just came down for the season?
  • What precautions did Mr. A take to protect himself?
  • What type of test did Mr. A take?
  • Have Mr. A’s spouse and child been tested? With what result?
  • What precautions did Mr. B take?
  • Has Mr. B been tested and with what result?
  • Has anyone in the Bubble been tested and with what result?
  • Is there anything we all should have done to protect the Bubble?

These are just some of the questions we had. All of them seem reasonable as we wanted to plan our next steps and how to protect ourselves. The privacy person in me then awoke asking “am I invading someone’s privacy?” by trying to get all this information.

Privacy and COVID

I did not know the identity of Mr. A. To me, this was good as I really didn’t need to know his identity and the Bubble didn’t need to know who Mr. A is to make decisions. You could say the identity was anonymized.

However, we did know the identity of Mr. B. We could easily find out who Mr. B played with on that fateful Tuesday (it’s public information) to narrow down the identity of Mr. A, so Mr. A is not truly anonymous. We need to think about public sources of information that may help to re-identify de-identified data when considering if something is truly anonymous.

A reason to maintain your privacy, in the COVID case, can be seen by how Mr. A and Mr. B are being treated by the Bubble and other community members. Since we know the identity of Mr. B, there was a lot of anger toward Mr. B. Discussions were rampant that since this is the third time this individual has been exposed, he must be acting in a risky manner. The question of “how do we protect ourselves from Mr. B?” was actively discussed.

Mr. A, being anonymous, was essentially given the benefit of the doubt. No one had information about him nor could identify him, so no anger or hostility presented itself. While Mr. B was being ostracized, Mr. A was unscathed.

The online impact

COVID, of course, has kept all of us, even within the Bubble, remote and isolated. All of the communications above took place via text message and email. An application that would protect the privacy of the conversation was not used nor was there any indication of the messages may have been forwarded to.  The risk to the conversation participants, the Bubble, is that their views and concerns may have been exposed to others.

Another practice in the community is that someone who tests positive, let us call them Ms. C, must notify the Community President. The President sends an email notifying the community that an individual has tested positive including the name, if the individual allows.

Most community members do not think this is a big deal, they have nothing to hide and alerting the community is “the right thing to do”. However, Ms. C may now experience the same type of anger felt by Mr. B. She may become the subject of discrimination in hiring, housing, or other aspects of their lives for “doing the right thing” in notifying her neighbors of her condition. This is why laws like HIPAA protect health care information.

How it turned out?

After a few sleepless nights and the Bubble’s self-isolating, some members took tests. All came back negative, so life will go on.

Mr. A identified himself to the community in case someone he had contact with had not yet been notified. The golf community required both Mr. A and Mr. B to quarantine for 14 days.

The Bubble is still trying to figure out if there is anything else we can do to keep healthy without intruding on individual privacy.