Sen. Asks Tech CEOs To Take Liability For Virus Tracing App

By Nadia Dreid
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Law360 (April 21, 2020, 9:49 PM EDT) -- The Senate's youngest member has qualms about Apple and Google's joint venture to help governments trace the contacts of those who have been infected by the novel coronavirus precipitated by Google's "poor record on privacy."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, laid out his concerns in an open letter to the two tech giants Tuesday, asking Google LLC CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook to pledge that they will be personally liable for any privacy violations made by their companies in connection with the project.

That would ensure that they could be held to the promise later under federal and state consumer protection laws, Hawley said, expressing fears that the project "could pave the way for something much more dire."

"The possible implications this project could have for privacy are alarming," he said in the letter. "Too often, Americans have been burned by companies who calculated that the profits they could gain by reversing privacy pledges would outweigh any later financial penalty levied against the company."

Apple and Google unveiled their joint venture into contact tracing earlier this month, saying they were tweaking their respective smartphone operating systems to allow Bluetooth-based contact tracing for people that have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The idea is that Google and Apple smartphone users would able to opt in to a service that would let them know if they have come into contact with or close to someone who has reported a positive COVID-19 test result, identifying exposure and serving as a potential boon to public health officials working to stem the spread of the disease.

The announcement sparked reactions from privacy advocates who are concerned about the implications of widespread location tracking, not reassured by the tech giants' promises that the data will be anonymized. But some have remained cautiously optimistic about the proposal, which has earned the green light from the U.K.'s privacy watchdog.

Nearly 300 academics signed an open letter praising the initiative so long as proper privacy protections were put in place. But in Tuesday's letter, Hawley worried that such privacy protections might be removed "after the pandemic subsides."

"Once downloaded onto millions of phones, the interface easily could be edited to eliminate previous privacy protections," he said. "The last thing Americans want is to adopt, amid a global emergency, a tracking program that then becomes a permanent feature in our lives."

The day the senator sent his letter, more than 820,000 people across the United States were confirmed to have been infected with the virus. More than 44,000 in the country have died, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Representatives for Google and Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

--Additional reporting by Ben Kochman. Editing by Brian Baresch.

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