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It’s public health over privacy

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Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng said at a press conference. Hong Menea

It’s public health over privacy

Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng said the authorities are prioritising public health over privacy as they actively trace people who may have been in contact with Covid-19 patients.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Bun Heng said the authorities have adopted a system to track the movement of those suspected of contracting the virus.

“Let me tell you this, wherever you go, we’ll know. Now we have adopted a contact tracing system. Wherever I go, like when I go outside my house, they [the authorities] know.

“If they want to follow me to find out whether I have Covid-19 or not, they can do so. They can track my movement, knowing whom I go to meet, have lunch or shake hands with. The system works fast and is responsive.

“This should be seen as a joint effort between the government and the media. Even journalists, wherever they go, we’ll know. With the system in place, we can track where you go and whom you meet.

“But don’t be afraid. You can go meet your sweetheart, it’s okay, but protect yourself from Covid-19. If you have it, they will follow you,” he said.

When asked how the tracking system could affect individual privacy, Bun Heng said the government needs to set its priorities straight. In case of a pandemic, he said the ministry needs to take measures for the sake of national interests.

“If you get infected, it’s not just you who suffer, but you will pass it on to others too. It’s not only you who die, but you could also cause other people to die too.

“Therefore, a limit on privacy is inevitable. We must comply with public health regulations. You said it affects the right to privacy, but if you get Covid-19 and pass it on to others, doesn’t that mean you violate their rights too?

“The virus does not know who’s who and can be transmitted at any time as long as there’s a source of infection,” he stressed.

Cambodia Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesperson Chin Malin said that unlike the right to life and the right to be free from torture, privacy is not an absolute right.

“The privacy right is guaranteed by law, but this is not an absolute right. It means that it can be limited and restricted to serve public interests, including national and
social security, among others.

“In case of a fight against terrorism that affects national security, for example, privacy would no longer be considered an absolute right. In that case, they [authorities] can monitor one’s private life and track communications by all means necessary for the sake of national security and public interests,” he said.

Last week, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications launched two tracking systems – OpenTraceKH and Self Quarantine – to detect people who have been in contact with Covid-19 patients, and to receive information from those who are kept under quarantine or receiving treatment.

Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap urged the government to balance privacy and public health rights while applying the tracking systems.

“It is legitimate for the government to prioritise the right to community health during this time of uncertainty, considering the severity with which Covid-19 has impacted countries across the globe.

“This can include tracing physical contact of those who have received a positive diagnosis. Contact tracing has been used by governments worldwide as a response to Covid-19 as it is important that those who have tested positive and those who have had contact with Covid-19 positive individuals be monitored to prevent the virus’ spread.

However, Sopheap said the tracking system should not go beyond public health goals. She urged the authorities not to collect private and personal information that does not serve the purpose of containing the pandemic and to refrain from publishing it.

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