Senate Pressed To Protect Data Privacy Amid COVID-19 Crisis

By Nadia Dreid
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Law360 (April 9, 2020, 9:25 PM EDT) -- Amid the rush to harness data as a tool to understand and stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, open internet advocate Public Knowledge is voicing its concerns about "thoughtlessly advancing digital surveillance technology during the COVID-19 crisis" to the Senate.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation received the nonprofit's letter Thursday, urging Congress to enact "guardrails" that would protect personal data from bad actors both during and after the pandemic.

"Unfortunately, we are responding to the pandemic without a comprehensive federal privacy law in place," Public Knowledge's policy counsel Sara Collins said in a statement. "At the same time, apps and devices are collecting more health and other private information, and the government is seeking to share in this data collection and analysis."

The letter is part of a "paper hearing" held Thursday on the subject of "enlisting big data in the fight against coronavirus," where the committee solicited witness testimony and comment on the topic without actually meeting.

A concession to mandated social distancing measures, the committee said it drafted the paper hearing process so that it may "continue investigative and oversight responsibilities while adhering to public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic."

Public Knowledge said it hoped the senators used the hearing as an opportunity to question tech companies about current practices and remain skeptical of any sweeping promises about the effectiveness of harnessing data in the fight against the pandemic.

One such guardrail that the group urged the committee to consider — and add to the next coronavirus stimulus package — was a mandate that any personal data used to fight or measure the pandemic be "necessary and proportionate" to both the pandemic response and the safety of the public. 

"All response measures should be temporary in nature, limited in scope, restricted to using anonymized aggregate data whenever possible, and adopted only if they are a necessary response to the COVID-19 crisis," the letter said.

The quasi-hearing and Public Knowledge's letter come on the heels of Google's announcement that it will be tapping into its vast bank of location data to publish reports showing how people are moving during the pandemic.

More than 16,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and nearly 450,000 have fallen ill. In an effort to stem the spread, nearly every state has issued some form of social distancing order, mandating that residents shelter in place and only leave their home for essential activities.

Google unveiled its plan to start publishing the so-called COVID-19 mobility reports Friday, promising people the ability to "see how your community is moving around differently" due to the coronavirus pandemic with insights gleaned from the location data of its millions of smartphone users.

Privacy advocates have already voiced concerns about location data being used in such a way, with two Democratic senators writing to Google earlier this week to demand answers on what information is being gathered and with whom it is being shared.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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