March 9 2020
NHRCK Chairperson’s Statement on Excessive Disclosure of Private Information of COVID-19 Patients
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (Chairperson Young-ae Choi) expresses its gratitude and respect to the government and healthcare workers for their hard work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to the citizens of the Republic of Korea for their thoughtful and mature response to the pandemic. The Commission, however, is concerned about excessive disclosure of personal data of confirmed patients as the central and local governments publicizes travel histories of infected people.
At present, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and metropolitan and provincial governments are releasing a detailed log of movements of COVID-19 patients, including the time and names of places they visited, through the media and related websites.
The release of virus carrier travel logs is required by the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. Article 34-2 (1) of the Act states that citizens should be provided with detailed information about patients with infectious disease such as their movements, means of transportation, medical institutions and contacts once the alert level has been raised to “precautions” or above.
It is hard to dispute the need for disclosing the time and names of the places they visited to help prevent further spread of the virus. However, the authorities are currently providing more information than is necessary to stop the spread of disease, leading to a violation of privacy and human rights of an infected person. Furthermore, the release of personal data may result in secondary damages as patients become the target of criticism, taunts and hatred online.
According to a survey conducted by Graduate School of Public Health of Seoul National University in February 2020, people are less worried about contracting COVID-19 than they are about the criticism that they might receive from their community if they are infected. The disclosure of specific travel logs of all patients could even dissuade those with symptoms from coming forward to be tested.
Therefore, the Commission calls on the authorities to publish the time and names of locations visited by infected people, rather than providing the travel history of each individual, and specify disinfection and protective measures taken by the public health authorities for these locations. They should come up with measures that will ease public fears and protect the privacy of patients.
The Commission looks forward to concrete and reasonable standards on the disclosure of patients’ information developed by the public health authorities that take into account patient privacy concerns, which will help prevent excessive disclosure of personal data and effectively contain the spread of new infectious disease such as COVID-19.
The Commission wishes for speedy recovery of COVID-19 patients and hopes that we work together to overcome the current crisis.