Government Plan To Fight COVID-19 Could Result In 'Wholesale Privacy Invasion,' Senator Warns

The federal government's effort to garner data from tech companies in order to combat COVID-19 is raising concerns on Capitol Hill.

“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,” Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said Thursday in a letter to Michael Kratsios, the U.S. chief technology officer. “I urge you to balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis.”

Markey's letter comes in response to reports that the government wants to obtain location data about consumers from Google, Facebook and other companies, for modeling efforts.

The reports have stressed that the data would be “anonymized” and “aggregated” but, as Markey notes, even supposedly anonymized data can carry privacy risks. Location data is seen as especially likely to threaten privacy given that it can reveal people's home addresses and workplaces -- information that can be used to discover their identities.

“A person’s location information can reveal other sensitive details, such as a place of employment, religious affiliation, or political preferences,” Markey writes. “We need assurances that collection and processing of these types of information, even if aggregated and anonymized, do not pose safety and privacy risks to individuals.”

Markey is asking the White House to answer a host of questions about its plans, including how location data will be anonymized and aggregated, and how the administration will ensure that the data can't later be re-identified.

Other questions focus on how the government will protect the information, who will have access to it, and whether it will be destroyed after the COVID-19 outbreak passes.

It's still not clear whether tech companies plan to accede to the government's wishes.

Google reportedly said it is “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help” combat the pandemic.

“One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” spokesman Johnny Luu stated to The Washington Post.

He reportedly added that Google didn't plan to share data “about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

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