Senate Bill Would Require Consumer Consent for COVID Tracking

(Bloomberg) -- A planned Senate bill from top Republicans would require companies such as Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to obtain consent to collect people’s health or location data as part of a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill, which is expected to be introduced by four lawmakers when the Senate resumes next week, comes as privacy concerns mount over the collection of user data to trace the spread of coronavirus. A draft was obtained by Bloomberg and confirmed by two GOP staffers.

The bill, which is led by Senator Roger Wicker, would also require companies to explain “how their data will be handled, to whom it will be transferred, and how long it will be retained” when the data is first being collected, according to an announcement from the Senate Commerce Committee, which Wicker leads.

“This data has great potential to help us contain the virus and limit future outbreaks, but we need to ensure that individuals’ personal information is safe from misuse,” said Wicker, whose panel has spent months trying to write a bipartisan bill governing online privacy with scant success.

The bill comes as Apple and Google are racing to launch an app project that will give a tool to public health agencies to track the spread of the virus. The technology would allow people who test positive for Covid-19 to input their diagnosis into an app. The system would then use Bluetooth technology to alert others who have come into contact with that person of possible exposure.

The alerts wouldn’t reveal who the sick individual is and the companies have taken steps to build in privacy protections and prevent the identification of those with the virus. Still the technology companies have faced criticism that the system is collecting too much data and privacy concerns could get in the way of the broad adoption that would be needed to make the project work.

The COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act would make sure consumers have the option to opt out of “the collection, processing, or transfer of their personal health, geolocation, or proximity information.” It would also require transparency reports from companies on their efforts, establish security standards and require that personally identifying data be deleted after the emergency or make companies convert it to a form that no longer identifies individuals.

Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the body, has also signed on to the bill, as have Senators Jerry Moran and Marsha Blackburn. The GOP controls the Senate, which means that the bill has a chance of receiving a vote. Concerns from Democrats could still doom any text, particularly in the House.

Members from both parties have introduced broader privacy bills, there isn’t bipartisan agreement on a measure.

Also on Thursday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent letters to the chief executives of Alphabet, YouTube and Twitter Inc. urging them to alert users who have engaged with harmful misinformation around the virus.

Facebook Inc. recently said it would crack down on posts that encourage people to break rules about social distancing to protest government lockdowns, as part of other takedowns of harmful falsities. YouTube said that since early February, it has removed “thousands of videos violating our Covid-19 misinforation policies.” Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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