30 Mar, 16 | by Iain Brassington
“Hey, Iain,” says Fran, a Manchester alumna, “What do you make of this?” I won’t bother rehearsing the whole scenario described in the post, but the dilemma it describes – set out by one Simon Carley – is fairly easily summarised: you work in A&E; a patient is rolled in who’s unconscious; there’s no ID, no medic alert bracelet – in short, nothing to show who the patient is or what their medical history is; but the patient does have an iPhone that uses thumbprints as a security feature. And it might be that there’s important information that’d be accessible by using the unconscious patient’s thumb to get at it – even if it’s only a family member who might be able to shed some light on the patient’s medical history.
It’s a potentially life-or-death call. Would it be permissible to hold the phone to the patient’s thumb?
For those who think that privacy is a side-constraint – that is, a moral consideration that should not be violated – the answer will be obvious, and they’ll probably stop reading around about… NOW. After all, if you’re committed to that kind of view, it’s entirely possible that the question itself won’t make a great deal of sense (tantamount to “Is it OK to do this thing that is plainly not OK?”), or at least not be worth asking. But I don’t think that privacy is a side-constraint; I’m increasingly of the opinion that privacy is a bit of an iffy concept across the board, for reasons that needn’t detain us here, but that might be implied by at least some of what follows. In short, I think that privacy is worth taking seriously as a consideration, but it’s almost certainly not trumps. At the very least, that’s how I shall handle it here. (Note here that the problem is one of privacy, not – as the OP has it – confidentiality; it’s a question about how to get information, rather than one of what you can do with information volunteered. A minor quibble, perhaps, but one worth making.) Even if I’m wrong about privacy in general, the question still seems to be worth asking, if only to confirm that and why it should not be violated. more…