Senators reportedly plan COVID-19 contact-tracing privacy bill


Apple and Google have created technology to track COVID-19’s spread.

Angela Lang/CNET

A group of US senators reportedly plans to detail a bill on Monday to regulate contact-tracing apps, aiming to protect user privacy as technology is used to track the spread of the novel coronavirus

The proposal would be called the Exposure Notification Privacy Act, according to the Washington Post, and would ensure that people couldn’t be forced to use the technology. It also would make sure that the data isn’t used for advertising or commercial purposes, the newspaper said, citing one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington. 

“We’re all irritated our browser history might be sold a thousand times over,” she told the Washington Post, “but when it’s your health care history, it’s a whole new realm.”

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The bill also would allow users to delete their data and would require that notification systems “only accept authorized medical diagnoses,” according to Axios.

Cantwell’s co-sponsors on the bill include Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana; and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

The offices of Cantwell, Cassidy and Klobuchar didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Apple or Google. 

The coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Since that time, it’s become a full-blown pandemic, infecting over 6.2 million people and killing over 370,000 around the globe. The outbreak has caused cities and entire countries to issue lockdowns, shuttering stores, canceling events and forcing citizens to stay at home to help contain the coronavirus. Some locations have started re-opening, but experts warn the risk of infection remains.

Companies have been working on technology to speed up the contact tracing process, which in turn would slow the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing, done the normal, old-school way, is labor intensive, with people tracking down everyone who’s been in touch with someone who test positive for the disease. 

Apple and Google in April said they were working together on a major effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 that uses signals from people’s phones to warn them if they’ve been in contact with someone over the past 14 days who’s tested positive for the disease. The technology became available to government health authorities in late May, with Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina among the first to use it. 

The joint project takes advantage of two of the world’s most popular operating systems — Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android — to potentially reach billions of people. The tools will use Bluetooth radio technology to support apps that will be developed by public health authorities, and iPhones and devices powered by Google’s Android software will be able to communicate with each other.

Privacy watchers and civil liberties advocates have warned that relying on technology for contact tracing will create a disparity on who is counted when governments make public health decisions. Apple and Google have sought to alleviate fears about privacy by tweaking how the system will work. For one, it will be opt-in, meaning it won’t be turned on by default. 

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