Beneath the justifiable pride over Israel's unrivaled success in rapidly vaccinating a large portion of the population against COVID-19 lies a highly troubling secret that warrants further scrutiny.
Indeed, even as planeloads of hundreds of thousands of vials of Pfizer's miraculous anti-coronavirus vaccine make their way to Ben-Gurion Airport each week, the Israeli public is nonetheless being kept in the dark as to the terms of the deal signed between the Jewish state and the pharmaceutical giant. If media reports are accurate, it appears that Israel is trading something far more precious than money in exchange for the inoculations: the privacy of each and every one of us.
As of this writing, the government has refused to reveal the terms of the agreement with Pfizer as though it is a matter on par with state security or even the secret recipe to make Coca-Cola, but it seems that in addition to dollars, Pfizer will also get a windfall of data, although we are not being told the extent or nature of what that means. Instead of being upfront with the public, the government has chosen to be coy, further adding to concerns that much more is being given away than officials would like to admit.
To be sure, the Health Ministry was quick to make soothing pronouncements in an attempt to dispel any concerns about the release of patients' private medical information. In an interview last Friday on Channel 12, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Ministry's point-person on public health, insisted, "All the information we will give to Pfizer is information that we make available to the public" and will be limited to "how many cases, how many serious cases, how many fatalities, how many vaccinated."
That sounds reasonable enough, but there is one small problem with this assertion. If the data being handed over to Pfizer is already available in the public realm, why was there a need for it to be included in the contract? After all, like you, me and anyone else with access to Google, Pfizer can easily obtain this information on its own. They surely do not need an Israeli Health Ministry bureaucrat to compile it for them in an Excel file. Yet press reports indicate that it was exactly this willingness to trade data to Pfizer, which persuaded the firm to accelerate the sale and delivery of its vaccine to the Jewish state ahead of other countries.
For its part, Pfizer released a statement saying that the company "will not receive any identifiable individual health information – the Ministry of Health will share only aggregated epidemiological data." It is unclear whether this was said with a straight face.
WHY DOES any of this matter? Perhaps it doesn't. But the simple fact is that we, the public, do not know what is being done with our own data, nor have we been asked for our consent that it be shared with a pharmaceutical company abroad. This may, or may not, be a significant breach of every individual's expectation of privacy regarding his or her medical records. Whether one cares or not that the information is being shared is beside the point. Either way, don't we have the right to know? That is what makes this situation even more mystifying. Despite the obvious concerns that the Pfizer deal should raise regarding how the government handles sensitive personal information, it did not generate the widespread outrage one would have expected.
Why? Perhaps most Israelis don't mind or care. Perhaps they see sacrificing potential privacy to obtain the vaccine more quickly as a price worth paying. That, of course, is their right. But what is truly troubling is the conduct of the government, which acts as if it owns our personal information and can barter it abroad in exchange for something.
In a democracy, the government derives its power and legitimacy from the people and not the other way around. This heavy-handed approach to sensitive data is indicative of a much larger problem from which Israel has suffered for decades: a bloated bureaucracy that inevitably impinges on fundamental freedoms and basic liberties. As Ronald Reagan once put it, "Either you will control your government or government will control you." The question of whether our privacy should be for sale is of far too much consequence simply to be ignored. Transparency is key, but it has not been on display with regard to the deal with Pfizer.
Like most Israelis, I am delighted to see the country leading the way in vaccinating its population, thereby saving countless lives and hopefully serving as an example for other countries to follow. Nonetheless, whatever legal or formulaic arrangements might exist to justify the transfer of information to Pfizer, the bottom line is that the deal and the Health Ministry's efforts to conceal its terms do not pass the smell test. If there is nothing to hide in the Pfizer contract, then why does the government seem to be going to such great lengths to do just that?
It is time to remove the shroud of secrecy surrounding the Pfizer deal and give the public an opportunity to discern, debate and decide what data, if any, it agrees to share.
It is so obvious that it shouldn't have to be said, but here goes: We, the people, have a right to know.