When officials in Utah and North Dakota attempted to use a GPS-based COVID-19 contact tracing app, residents balked, concerned about how government agencies or private companies might use their data.

South Korea minimized the pandemic’s impacts with widespread testing and the swift deployment of contact-tracing phone apps, but similar efforts in the U.S. faltered.

Pandemic-driven public health demands are testing Americans’ long- and dearly held notions of privacy, according to Anita Allen, an expert on privacy law and ethics.

“The United States is suffering in part because we do have this libertarian, sort of laissez-faire philosophy where people are pretty much expected to be able to do what they want to do, even in times of crisis,” said Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s vice provost for faculty, in an interview on the Hot Philosophy podcast.

Allen, an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, will explore the intersection of these values in her virtual lecture, “Reconciling Privacy and Accountability: the Context of COVID-19,” at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, as part of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture series hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The series of free, public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the value of the research institute’s program to bring renowned thought leaders to speak to the greater community, sharing their discoveries, insights and perspectives on the major biomedical, health science and policy issue of the day.

The lecture will be accessible via Zoom. Attendees are encouraged to register online in advance.

“Dr. Allen is an internationally respected voice on privacy law, ethics, and bioethics. As an attorney and philosopher, she brings a unique lens to issues that challenge all of us, including those of us in the medicine and research realms,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

Allen has pondered the clash of values brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Demands on people in the name of public health are likely to continue, such as expectations that everybody be vaccinated when the opportunity becomes available. Some may see a requirement as invasive and a violation of their freedom.

“A prerequisite of your freedom may well be a sacrifice of your privacy in a limited context for a period of time,” Allen said in the podcast.

Allen was recognized by President Barack Obama in 2009 when he appointed her to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, a post she held until 2017. The commission advised the president on bioethical issues emerging from biomedicine, science, and technology and identified and promoted policies and practices to ensure advances are pursued in an ethical manner.

She is also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Law Institute. Allen received the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award and Howard University’s Alain Locke Excellence Award in Legal Philosophy. Allen also serves as Chair of the University of Pennsylvania Provost’s Advisory Council on Arts, Culture, and the Humanities.

Prior to joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, Allen was a professor and the associate dean for research and scholarship at Georgetown University’s Law Center. Earlier in her career, she was an assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and an assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Allen has authored five books and more than 110 publications and book chapters, and serves on editorial advisory boards for Ethics, Critical Philosophy of Race, Legal Theory, Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, and the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics.

Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, classics, and literature from New College of Florida; a master’s and doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Michigan; and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.

To view Allen’s virtual lecture, register online via the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website to receive access to the Zoom link, or watch the event’s live webcast.

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