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Witness Seminar on the topic, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place?: Can Governments Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Still Respect Personal Privacy?

COVID-19 Research Area(s): Politics, Governance & Law

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. 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. This issue is among the hard policy choices with which government officials are now faced, often without clear guidelines to follow or knowledge of the range of policy and technology options that could enable capabilities needed to fight COVID-19, such as the issuance of “immunity certificates”, while still protecting individuals’ privacy.

Goal of the Witness Seminar: Developed in the 1990s by The History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group of the Wellcome Trust (Tansey, 2006), with the first such seminar exploring the subject of monoclonal antibodies. Witness seminars began as a novel approach to oral history and evolved into a gathering of 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 topics of special interest and make collective oral history materials available for widespread use.

Participation: Those interested in participating should register by sending their name, email address, and organizational affiliation (if any) to

Date/Time/Duration of the Witness Seminar: Tuesday, May 5, 2020 4-8pm UTC (9-1pm Pacific Time)

Logistics: Participants will meet online using the UBC Zoom platform. Joining instructions will be sent out one day in advance of the seminar together with the final program and a list of all the attendees. Participants unable to meet synchronously are invited to prepare a 5 minute video clip presenting a perspective on the key question, i.e., Can Governments Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Still Respect Personal Privacy?

Style of Interaction: Interactions are expected to be informal nature and spontaneous. We consider the Witness Seminar format to be a form of open peer-review, with all remarks and opinions immediately subject to rejoinder, agreement, or dispute from others.
We discourage participants from bringing prepared scripts, and we do not (except in special circumstances) allow slides or other visual material to be shown, simply because of the disruption this can introduce to the meeting.

Publication of the Witness Seminar: The complete proceedings will be recorded and transcribed and made available as a public document for use in future publications by anyone wishing to use the material. Submitted video presentations also will be transcribed and preserved as part of the archival record. All opinions expressed during the seminar will published, unless a participant specifically asks us to exclude a remark, for example, on the grounds of confidentiality.

Editorial Process: For legal and copyright reasons, all participants will take responsibility for their own remarks, the copyright of which is assigned to UBC. We will send a copy of the unedited transcript to all participants for them to amend their own, and only their own, contributions. Minor comments will be incorporated into the master text. At this stage we will not allow extensive alterations or any corrections of others’ contributions. We will make use of footnotes to accommodate further comments, information and remarks. Participants may be asked for additional details.