How Facebook Protects Privacy in Our COVID-19 Initiatives

By Erica Finkle, Public Policy Director

In the year-plus that’s passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) first declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency, Facebook has supported the public health community by connecting people to accurate information about COVID-19, removing harmful content, providing health researchers with data and tools and helping people get vaccinated

Sometimes in emergency situations, “privacy” is framed as an all-or-nothing tradeoff, where people are forced to make the impossible choice between their privacy or public health interests. We believe that privacy and public health are complementary and there’s a way to do both well. 

Today, we are publishing a white paper on how we’re protecting privacy in our COVID-19 initiatives. This paper covers our decisions regarding data and how we sought to address the urgent needs of public health authorities and researchers while maintaining our commitment to privacy and other fundamental rights. 

The paper also explores our work and lessons in the following areas:

  • Working with and seeking advice from public health officials, researchers and other experts to understand specific public health objectives or gaps in knowledge that data and technology could help advance. 
  • Introducing new accountability processes and frameworks to ensure privacy was deeply embedded into our operations and product development practices.
  • Promoting symptom and preventive behaviors surveys, and sharing reliable sources of information about symptoms and preventive behaviors from health authorities via the COVID Information Center.
  • Providing insights through our Our Data for Good program, using Facebook data in privacy preserving ways to help researchers and health authorities get the information they need to understand and respond to the pandemic and plan for their recovery.
  • Using machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide academic researchers and other experts with reliable predictions of where COVID-19 is spreading and at what rate. 

We hope the white paper we’re releasing today will spark conversation about the best ways for companies like Facebook to contribute to public health initiatives like fighting COVID-19 while keeping data safe and secure.

In the coming months, we’ll host a series of broader discussions with global stakeholders to better understand how to improve our decision-making process, now and in the future, for similar projects in the public interest and should emergencies arise again.



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