Witness Webinar: Can Governments Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Still Respect Personal Privacy?


Victoria Lemieux

Date of Publication


Governments around the world are desperate for solutions to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. From finding a vaccine, to ramping up testing, repurposing supply chains, tracing contacts and tracking compliance with quarantine orders, governments everywhere are pulling out all the stops to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the solutions being deployed rely upon novel technologies that potentially pose a threat to individuals’ privacy (DeCell, 2020). Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks discussing in equal measure the promise and the perils of these technologies in a perceived trade-off between the immediate necessity of beating the novel Coronavirus and the less immediate but also concerning loss of personal privacy.

As a result, government officials face hard policy choices, often without clear guidelines to follow or knowledge of the range of policy and technology options. While some tracking and tracing technologies may threaten personal privacy, UBC researchers have been working together on novel blockchain-based technologies that could enable capabilities needed to fight COVID-19, such as the issuance of “immunity certificates”, while still protecting individuals’ privacy.

This rapid publication working group will bring together experts on ethical, legal, and social implications of public health technologies to 1) explore the challenges, risks, and benefits of deploying novel technologies in the response to COVID-19, 2) open a dialogue with public health officials and the public about the challenges, risks and benefits, and 3) use the exploration and dialogue to write a public policy paper (for publication) that lays out the challenges, risks and benefits and sets out a framework that can be used in public policy decision-making and technology design.

The working group will adapt the Witness Seminar methodology outlined in Tansey (2006) to enable exploration and online participation and engagement. This seminar was held on May 5, 2020, and a transcript of the discussion will be available shortly.

Witness seminars provide a platform to gather numerous participants who are recorded simultaneously and able to interact with each other and with the seminar convenor. The Witness Seminars produce group discussions on the topic of interest and make collective materials available for widespread use. A broad range of “witnesses” with diverse perspectives were invited to attend, from public health officials, to biomedical scientists, information ethicists, legal experts, technology experts, civil libertarians, the media, and members of the public.

External Link

Read the Research Paper

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that the UBC Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm.

UBC Crest The official logo of the University of British Columbia. Urgent Message An exclamation mark in a speech bubble. Caret An arrowhead indicating direction. Arrow An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Chats Two speech clouds. Facebook The logo for the Facebook social media service. Information The letter 'i' in a circle. Instagram The logo for the Instagram social media service. External Link An arrow entering a square. Linkedin The logo for the LinkedIn social media service. Location Pin A map location pin. Mail An envelope. Menu Three horizontal lines indicating a menu. Minus A minus sign. Telephone An antique telephone. Plus A plus symbol indicating more or the ability to add. Search A magnifying glass. Twitter The logo for the Twitter social media service. Youtube The logo for the YouTube video sharing service.