Google Questioned By Senators Over COVID-19 Reports

Two lawmakers are questioning Google over its use of location data to track people's movements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No one should fear that their phone is monitoring their every step,” Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conneticut) wrote Tuesday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “Location data sharing carries with it myriad risks, and while we commend Google’s efforts to assist in combatting the coronavirus pandemic, we caution you against steps that risk undermining your users’ privacy.”

The letter comes in response to Google's rollout of COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which the company says draws on anonymous and aggregated data to track people's movements.

When Google unveiled the initiative, the company promised to avoid revealing personally identifiable information, including an individual's location, contacts or movements.

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Markey and Blumenthal are urging Google to “prioritize your users’ privacy and build on the existing privacy policies you have established for this initiative.”

"The potential consequences of misusing or inappropriately accessing individuals' personal location are particularly serious when location data is involved," the senators write. 

“During this pandemic, permissive use of location information abroad has also shown how this type of data sharing can facilitate other societal harms, including the spread of social stigma,” the letter continues, referencing a recent Guardian report exposing how health alerts in South Korea were compromising people's privacy.

The lawmakers pose specific questions to Google about its policies, including whether it plans to share users' coronavirus-related personal data or pseudonymous information with government or private entities.

Markey and Blumenthal are also asking Google to elaborate on its plans to collaborate with epidemiologists, and its plans to solicit feedback on the initiative, and what guidance it has given to public health officials about interpreting the reports.

The lawmakers have requested answers by April 14.

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