Sens. Sound Privacy Alarm On Google's Virus Screening Site

By Ben Kochman
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Law360 (March 18, 2020, 9:55 PM EDT) -- Five senior Democratic senators raised concerns Wednesday over whether a new coronavirus screening website set up by a Google subsidiary adequately protects users' data from hackers, or includes a promise not to use the data for targeted advertising.

In letters sent to the Trump administration and to Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, senators Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. questioned whether the White House had fully considered the privacy and cybersecurity risks stemming from the screening service launched Monday in the San Francisco Bay area by Verily, the life sciences company owned by Google's parent company Alphabet Inc.

The pilot version of the website, which is currently active only in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, allows users who have a Google account to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether they qualify for a test for the virus known as COVID-19. 

The senators wrote that while they "appreciated" the administration's efforts to use Google's technology to help Americans determine whether they qualify for a test, they were concerned that Google could later use that data in ways that users did not expect, or find itself a victim of a cyberattack.

“There are numerous privacy concerns about such an endeavor, including: whether people will be required to sign waivers forfeiting their privacy and personal data in order to access the questionnaire; whether Google or any of its subsidiaries will be prohibited from using data received through the website for commercial purposes; and whether Google and any of its subsidiaries will be prohibited from selling any data collected through the website to a third-party,” the senators wrote in their letter to Pichai.

“If Google and its subsidiaries fail to establish sufficient privacy safeguards, Americans who use the site will be more susceptible to identity theft, negative credit decisions, and employment discrimination,” the senators added.

The senators said that they were particularly concerned with Google's involvement in the program given the tech giant's apparent hunger for health data that it has shown in the past. In November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that it was investigating Google’s collaboration with hospital giant Ascension, which purportedly allowed the powerful tech company to gather health data on millions of Americans without their knowledge.

In the letters, the senators ask Pichai and Vice President Mike Pence's office to respond to a list of questions about the screening site by March 30.

Google did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment, but Verily wrote in a blog post that it was storing the data from the pilot program in "advanced systems with security and privacy protocols" and was complying with U.S. privacy law, including California's Consumer Privacy Act.

Verily stressed in the blog post that it was a separate company from Google, and said that it did not combine the data collected from its website with a user's Google account. Verily is asking questionnaire participants to provide a Google account "for authentication purposes" and to allow the site to contact users during the screening and testing process, the company said in the blog post.

The White House did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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