When Privacy Can be Lethal

The recent airliner crash in Europe raises questions about European privacy laws.  A European Union (EU) law known as “the right to be forgotten” is rooted in sentiment that on the Internet, we deserve to control how we are viewed by others. Along the road to that law’s adoption it leaned on evidence from some people incorrectly identified as criminals but who were later exonerated.

It’s notoriously difficult to un-ring a bell, but the law requires search databases to remove historical information pertaining to those who assert their “right to be forgotten.” In Europe today, many of those asserting that right are artists who disliked a public review, ex-cons, pedophiles, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businesspeople .

Some regard the “right to be forgotten” as a despicable suppression of the free flow of information and as a convenient scheme for re-writing history. The EU is trying to force its revisionist thinking into other countries by requiring that search targeting Europeans must conform to their law in google.fr, google.de and even in google.com. It is technically difficult to introduce schizophrenia into a search site and it squanders economies of scale, nevertheless this new “right” is popular in some circles.

Even when personal information is not stored on the Internet, European medical privacy laws seem stringent, but just how stringent is unclear. In New York state, it seems patients’ medical information may not be divulged without the patient’s permission or without a court order.  However, in several states the physician may warn public health officials if the patient poses a serious risk.

In the airline crash, it is unclear whether German law thwarted disclosing information relevant to public safety. It is also unclear what part was played in the airline tragedy by European sentiments on strong privacy and what part was played by (mis)judgement by the physician  who deemed the co-pilot unfit to fly on more than one occasion. What seems clear, however, is that investigators found torn up sick leave notes written by doctors in the home of the pilot that crashed the plane in the Alps. In other words, German doctors knew about the pilots condition, but did not report it.

So, how far does an airline’s obligation to safeguard the lives of passengers extend? The requirement for a reinforced cockpit door and lock system is effective at excluding unauthorized people from the airplane’s controls. A safety practice requiring two or more trusted people in the cockpit can prevent some murder-suicide scenarios, but it cannot prevent all mayhem by a determined, desperate airline employee.

If a physician detects a condition that renders a pilot unfit to fly an airplane, is the physician’s primary obligation to preserve the patient-physician privacy, or to alert public safety officials or the pilot’s employer? If a physician judges the patient unfit to fly, there are just two plausible reasons to remain silent – the damage from being a target of prosecution over a medical privacy violation, and the risk of rendering the physician-patient relationship unworkable. But surely an employee’s right to medical privacy cannot trump 149 passengers’ right to life, and if some European law suggests otherwise it needs to be ignored immediately and changed quickly

More privacy might seem a satisfying choice, but too much emphasis on privacy can be lethal. When it comes to public safety, the right to be forgotten in Europe should be forgotten

Alan Daley writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

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