The erosion of digital privacy over the last two decades has caused a healthy sense of skepticism toward data collection — but with the coronavirus pandemic, health officials need people to trust tech companies more than ever. Lawmakers are arguing that a bill regulating COVID-19 health data can help with that, and want it included in a second stimulus package.
In a letter to Senate leaders on Tuesday, a group of 13 lawmakers requested to include the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act in the next coronavirus relief package currently being negotiated by Congress.
The bill, introduced in May, would ensure that personal data collected for handling COVID-19 could only be used for public health services, and couldn’t be abused by tech companies for other purposes.
The data could only be used by government agencies if it’s a public health agency, and would require data security standards so companies collecting that sensitive information would need to properly protect it. Tech companies involved in the public health crisis have asked for sensitive information including location data and biometrics.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, introduced the bill shortly before Apple and Google’s exposure notification efforts went live on May 20.
“With research consistently showing that Americans are reluctant to adopt COVID screening and tracing apps due to privacy concerns, the lack of health privacy protections could significantly undermine efforts to contain this virus and begin to safely re-open – particularly with many screening tools requiring a critical mass in order to provide meaningful benefits,” the letter sent on Tuesday said.
Several tech companies have proposed solutions to helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which can be considered data privacy violations. Location data brokers have offered to track people’s movements to help health officials understand the spread of the disease, while facial recognition and surveillance companies are using their cameras to detect masks and temperature levels.
Police have also used social media surveillance to arrest people who are not abiding by local quarantine laws, a service that artificial intelligence companies are offering local governments as well.
Companies like Google and Apple have said that their coronavirus tech tools would only be used for dealing with the disease, but without regulations mandating it, the public at large has remained skeptical of any tech tools looking to collect data.
The skepticism comes from a frayed relationship with tech giants, who have lost public trust after spending years taking people’s personal information. You use an app to find out the weather, and it turns out the weather app was giving your location data to advertisers.
There are no federal laws on data privacy, and health privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, don’t cover the tech companies’ efforts against COVID-19.
Data protection agencies around the world have also been loosening privacy standards during the pandemic, arguing that saving lives is more important than privacy in a public health crisis.
Many of the technology services rolled out to help health officials during the pandemic are opt-in, but without public trust, it’s unlikely that a majority of people will be signing up. Lawmakers are hoping that the legislation will create that trust.
“Providing Americans with assurance that their sensitive health data will not be misused will give Americans more confidence to participate in COVID screening efforts, strengthening our common mission in containing and eradicating COVID-19,” the letter stated.
Along with Warner and Blumenthal, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Kamala Harris (D-California), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Corey Booker (D-New Jersey) and six other senators signed the letter.
The group of senators are urging for the bill to be included in a second coronavirus relief package, which could inject $1 trillion in the US economy to help deal with financial pressures surged by the pandemic.