COVID-19 tracking efforts pose a privacy risk, senator says


The US government is considering using people’s phone to track the coronavirus’s spread during the pandemic.

James Martin/CNET

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Governments are looking to leverage phone tracking capabilities to help prevent the coronavirus outbreak from spreading, but using that technology poses serious privacy risks, a senator warned on Thursday. 

In a letter to Michael Kratsios, the chief technology officer of the Trump administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Sen. Ed Markey raised concerns about how location data can be used by the federal government. 

“Unless carefully circumscribed, location data can reveal deeply sensitive information about people’s private lives,” Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote in the letter. “The Administration must take extreme care not to implement location data-use policies that run the risk of violating Americans’ privacy.”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy did not respond to a request for comment.  

Governments in China, Singapore and South Korea have used phone location data to track coronavirus patients, which has helped develop measures and policies to keep groups quarantined and prevent the virus, along with the COVID-19 disease it induces, from spreading further. It’s been cited as a successful method, and the US government has considered doing the same, according to the Washington Post

Data privacy has taken a backseat amid in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, with the primary focus on saving lives and slowing down the pandemic’s rapid spread. On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said it was waiving penalties for privacy violations because it would allow more ways for doctors to video chat with patients. 

Phones have served as a valuable tracking tool for the advertising industry for years, with apps collecting location data from millions of devices and selling it for marketing purposes. The US government wants to leverage that same technology to control the coronavirus outbreak, and has turned to companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and IBM to help provide that data, according to reports. 

Mark Zuckerberg denied that Facebook was having those conversations with the US government, while Google said it was “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19.” 

Apple said that it has been a part of the White House’s COVID-19 task force meetings, but that it was primarily focused on providing technology for video communications for doctors and schools.

The other companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Markey warned that location data could reveal sensitive details like a person’s job, political affiliations and religious practices, even if it is anonymized and aggregated. Researchers have found that it’s fairly simple to tie anonymous location data to specific people based on their whereabouts. 

Markey asked the Trump administration to describe the location data that it is considering using, how it is assuring that the data cannot be deanonymized, how that data will be secured and who will have access to it. 

He also wanted to know if the government would stop the program once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. 

“Although I agree that we must use technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector to combat the coronavirus, we cannot embrace action that represents a wholesale privacy invasion, particularly when it involves highly sensitive and personal location information,” Markey said. “I urge you to balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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