Does Pfizer's deal with Israel on coronavirus research harm privacy?

It is unclear whether the government will follow or ignore recommendations from the Helsinki Committee.

An illustrative photo of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An illustrative photo of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Amid the near miraculous speed with which Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine was produced and is being administered, questions have been raised not about the vaccine, but about whether the government has agreed to research that undermines Israelis’ privacy rights.
There is a Health Ministry-related committee known as the Helsinki Committee, which was supposed to approve any deal by the Israeli government to provide citizens’ data to other entities, especially foreign, as part of a research study.
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, on Monday said the Helsinki Committee was not consulted before Israel agreed to participate in the research study.
Furthermore, even now it is unclear whether the government will follow or ignore recommendations from the Helsinki Committee, she said.
For example, the committee is recommending that no individual’s data be provided to Pfizer without that individual specifically agreeing, she added.
The agreement signed between the Health Ministry and Pfizer “entails one of the most extensive studies of humans in the 21st century, and Israel’s trove of data will in fact be readily available for scientific research for the rest of the world,” Shwartz Altshuler said.
“While the agreement might be viewed as an achievement toward expediting Israel’s race to be the first country to resume ‘normal life’ post-COVID... it was still necessary to obtain authorization from the Helsinki Committee and permission from the residents of Israel to use their health data,” she said.
“One of the crucial problems with the agreement is that although it acknowledges the need to preserve anonymity and privacy of Israelis, it does not outline steps to protect this principle,” Shwartz Altshuler said.
“The ability to reverse anonymity of Big Data is well documented, and the agreement as it stands poses a potential breach of health privacy to all the residents of Israel,” she said.
A twist in the debate over the issue is that some government officials are disputing whether the data being shared with Pfizer constitutes “a study” in the way that term is intended under relevant laws.
According to some, if no specific individual’s data is shared, just anonymous total numbers, many of the privacy protection rules become less obligatory.
The joint Israeli-Pfizer study is intended to see how much immunity the vaccine gives individuals, how successful it leads to herd immunity and what percentage of vaccinated persons have notable side effects. It is acknowledged to be important for Israel and the world.
But when you get into a specific analysis of the deal, Shwartz Altshuler flagged a number of concerns that suggest Pfizer and the government may ignore or fail to catch violations of privacy rights even as superficially they are committed to protect those rights.
In her analysis, she said the date of the agreement is blacked out, which could signal that the government wants cover for executing the deal before it received all of the proper approvals.
Next, she expressed concern that some of the wording commits to following certain rules, but it appears to have loopholes, such as secondary uses of data.
Moreover, as part of the deal, the Health Ministry confirmed to Pfizer that it had obtained all required approvals, but it is clear that this is not true, she said.
Also, the data is clearly part of a study by the terms used in the deal, many of the supposedly anonymous statistics can be easily broken down by Big Data capabilities to determine specific persons’ identities, and the data is meant to be shared with foreign countries and journals, Shwartz Altshuler said.
Furthermore, the deal does not specify how anonymity will be maintained, leaving doubt that this obligation will be taken seriously, she said.
Finally, Shwartz Altshuler objected to a provision that allowed Pfizer to disassociate itself with any study published by Israel should it disagree with the results, meaning it could contradict a study whose results were bad for its business.