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Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics




Data privacy is a life-or-death matter for public health. Beginning in late fall 2019, two series of events unfolded, one everyone talked about and one hardly anyone noticed: The greatest world-health crisis in at least 100 years, the COVID-19 pandemic; and the development of the Personal Data Protection Act Committee by the Uniform Law Commissioners (ULC) in the United States. By July 2021, each of these stories had reached a turning point. In the developed, Western world, most people who wanted to receive the vaccine against COVID- 19 could do so. Meanwhile, the ULC adopted the Uniform Personal Data Protection Act (UPDPA) at its annual meeting, paving the way for state legislatures to adopt it beginning in 2022. It has so far been introduced in three jurisdictions.

These stories intersect in public health. Public health researchers struggled with COVID-19 in the United States because they lacked information about individuals who were exposed, among other matters. Understanding other public health threats (e.g., obesity, opioid abuse, racism) also requires linking diverse data on contributing social, environmental, and economic factors. The UPDPA removes some barriers to public health practice and research resulting from the lack of comprehensive federal privacy laws. Its full potential, however, can be achieved only with involvement of public health researchers and professionals. This article analyzes the UPDPA and other comprehensive state privacy statutes, noting the ways that they could promote—and hinder—public health. It concludes with recommendations for public health researchers and professionals to get involved in upcoming legislative debates on data privacy. Lives will depend on the outcomes.

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Yale Law School

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