Privacy body to gov’t agencies, public: Don’t share sensitive patient info

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 10 2020 11:43 PM

MANILA — The National Privacy Commission (NPC) on Tuesday issued a statement reminding government agencies to follow data privacy guidelines when releasing information of COVID-19 cases.

“Following the President’s declaration of a public health emergency (PHE) concerning COVID-19, it is imperative upon the government to strike a balance between individual data privacy vis-à-vis public health interests, including the public’s right to know,” NPC commissioner Raymund Liboro said in the statement.

Liboro said the Data Privacy Act, which regulates the collection and release of personal data, is not meant to hamper government “from processing personal and sensitive personal information when necessary to fulfill their mandates during a public health emergency.”

Instead, he said proper handling of such information is “crucial in stopping the spread of the virus.”

Among the considerations the Department of Health and other agencies should weigh, according to the NPC, are (1) the potential harm or distress to the patient arising from the disclosure, and (2) the potential damage to trust in doctors and health institutions in general, versus (1) the potential harm to the public if the information is not disclosed and (2) the potential benefits to individuals and society arising from the release of information.

“Revealing the identities to the public or providing information that could accurately identify people who are under investigation or have contracted the disease is counterproductive and could do more harm than good,” Liboro said.

In a phone interview with ABS-CBN News, Liboro said among the data that should not be released is the exact address of the patients. 

“We want for people who are positive to come out and be tested. If they will experience shaming, if they will experience bashing, they and their families, that would prevent other patients from coming out,” he said. 

There have been instances when photos of a COVID-19 patient were shared in chat groups. The person who posted it said, “Tandaan n’yong mabuti ’yung mga katabi n’ya. Baka makasalubong n’yo.”

(Remember who she is seated with. You might come across them.)

Liboro told ABS-CBN News that such posts can fall under the Data Privacy Act’s Unauthorized Processing of Personal Information. This can result in imprisonment and fines that can reach up to millions of pesos.

He said the patient can file a complaint with the NPC to hold the person who posted it accountable.

Liboro said the public should only share verified information “such as but not limited to travel history, and frequented locations.”

He also asked media to be equally responsible when handling such information.

“It is prudent to confirm with the DOH’s official statistics and other information before sharing any pieces of information, especially information that would lead to the identification of an individual,” he added.