Protecting H3N2v’s Privacy

US H3N2v.1This past week the Guardian published a series of stunning articles on the extent of surveillance the National Security Agency has been conducting on U.S. citizens and millions of others worldwide.

Proponents of such programs, including President Obama, have contended secretly collecting our internet and phone metadata–when, where and with whom we connect–is about our protection.

I must say that as an evolutionary epidemiologist I find it a fascinating defense, if only because there have been several efforts aimed at producing geographies of deadly influenzas for which it has been nearly impossible to get governments across the globe, including the U.S., to provide the locales and dates of livestock outbreaks.

It’s as if the privacy rights of these viruses–and really the farms over which they spread–are better protected than those of the populations epidemiologists are ostensibly trying to protect.

As Helen Branswell describes it, the strain typing and pathogen genetic sequencing conducted by the National Animal Health Laboratory Network here in the U.S., including at several federally funded public universities, remains strictly confidential and for the livestock industry’s eyes only.

Paul Sundberg, vice president for science and technology for the National Pork Board, explains,

The pigs are owned by the farmer. And what happens to their pigs is the farmer’s business, not the government’s business, as long as the infection that is going on in those pigs is not what’s termed a program disease that is considered to be a risk to the national herd.

As if a new pandemic would emerge only when the whole of the national herd was infected first.

By the time swine flu H1N1 (2009) rolled around, clearly arising from industrial pigs, hog producers, worried about the bad publicity’s impact on the bottom line, stopped sending samples. To solicit some kind of cooperation from the industry, the CDC and USDA built in anonymity.

Any viruses found, including data describing on which farm or even in which county an outbreak has occurred, would be made available to a larger network of scientists only with the affected producer’s permission. But as a rule researchers are allowed only what state the virus is found, trivial data as we can see from the incomplete if heroic work of Eddie Holmes’s and Matthew Scotch’s phylogeography groups.

In other words, a federal government of a major industrial country won’t allow itself–much less anyone else–the geocoded data needed to determine where an outbreak of deadly pandemic influenza might emerge within its own borders, a possibility experts have long argued could kill hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Indeed, even if a person is subsequently infected by pigs the U.S. government still needs approval from the owner before the source pigs can be tested.

In contrast, we now learn NSA programs such as Boundless Informant and PRISM have mapped trillions of private calls and emails down to even the IP address, including under some protocols the content of the communication.

The revelations follow reports the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring social media sites for keywords indicative of terrorist threats. DHS search terms include “Outbreak,” “Contamination,” “H1N1,” “H5N1,” “Avian Flu,” “Influenza,” “Tamiflu,” “Human to Human,” “CDC,” “FDA,” “WHO,” “Swine,” “Pork,” “Agriculture,” “Resistant,” “Infection,” “Pandemic,” and “Wave,” a veritable tag cloud for many a research blog, including this one.

Does the difference between the privacy pathogens and people apparently partake speak to the nature of our democracy? It is as if talking about an outbreak is now thought more of a danger than the outbreak itself.

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