Democrats propose bill to protect health data used for contact tracing

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announces a bipartisan agreement on sanctions against Turkey at a press conference at Capitol Hill in Washington, October 17, 2019.

Erin Scott | Reuters

Five Democrats from both houses of Congress on Thursday introduced a bill that would protect consumers’ health data when they choose to use digital contact search technology that aims to slow the spread of Covid-19, including the technology that Apple and Google are incorporating into their smartphone software.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act would take several measures to protect the health data collected during a public health crisis. This would require companies that collect data to meet certain security standards and to delete the data after the public health emergency has passed. It would also prohibit that data collected for public health efforts be used by government agencies without a public health objective, or for other purposes such as commercial advertising, employment or insurance.

The bill would also allow Americans to choose whether or not to use digital contact tracking technology that tracks their location to determine if they have been in contact with someone known to be infected with the virus. In particular, this would oblige users to actively consent (opt-in) to their data being collected and would prohibit officials from making participation in contact tracing mandatory in order to vote in elections.

Monitoring of digital contacts and smartphones

Digital contact tracking uses short-range signals between smartphones to track when users are nearby. When a person tests positive for Covid-19, these systems can be used to warn others that they may have been exposed. (Regular contact tracing is a more manual process, involving volunteers who question subjects after being exposed to the virus, and then contact anyone whose subject says they are close.) But there are a wide variety of approaches digital contact search. , some of which do more to protect privacy than others.

The bill includes many privacy protections that Apple and Google insist on as a condition to allow public health agencies to use their software, such as forcing users to accept and restrict the use of the software to health organizations legitimate public.

But the Apple-Google approach is even stricter. Among other things, businesses will not allow the collection and storage of data in a centralized database – instead, applications will send anonymous alerts to people informing them that they may have been exposed. In addition, Apple-Google software allows applications to use only Bluetooth signals, which can be used to measure proximity, but not GPS, which can be used to identify a specific location.

This can make Apple-Google software less useful to public health services than applications that use more invasive approaches, such as an application developed by the State of Utah.

But these more invasive applications are also more likely to require the type of privacy protection proposed in the bill.

Stimulate distrust

The proposed protections could not only protect consumer data, but could also build trust in contact tracing methods, making them more effective. A Axios-Ipsos A survey of nearly 1,000 American adults between May 8 and May 11 found that 66% of those surveyed said they would not be at all or unlikely to use a contact finder made by large technology companies. More people said they would use a system created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health officials, although 48% said they would still be unlikely or certainly not used.

This distrust is a problem for contact tracing and potentially for public health. Contact tracking is most effective when most people have opted for the system. Otherwise, it is difficult to really follow all or most of the people with whom a person has been in contact.

Legislators who have introduced the legislation have said that Americans’ fears about contact tracing and the confidentiality of their health data are valid. Before the pandemic, lawmakers had moved towards more general digital privacy legislation, although several key disputes between Republicans and Democrats remained.

“Legal safeguards protecting consumer privacy have failed to keep pace with technology, and this gap costs us in the fight against COVID-19,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Member Senate Judicial and Commercial Committees in a statement.

“Americans are justifiably skeptical about the protection of their sensitive health data, and as a result are hesitant to participate in contact tracing programs essential to stop the spread of this disease. Public Health Emergency Commitment Privacy Act towards civilians liberties are an investment in our public health. “

“In the absence of a clear commitment from policy makers to improve our health privacy laws, as this important legislation seeks to accomplish, I fear that rampant violations of life privacy is becoming the new status quo in healthcare and public health, “said Senator Mark Warner, D-Va. ., Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The credibility – and even the effectiveness – of these technologies depends on public confidence.”

Representative Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Chair of the House Consumer Protection Subcommittee who also introduced the bill, said that it is important to remember that contact tracing is a part of the solution to the current health crisis combined with manual research and testing.

Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Chair of the House Health Subcommittee, and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. also introduced the bill. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Vice-Chair of the House Energy and Trade Committee, G. K. Butterfield D-N.Y., Vice-Chair of the Health Sub-Committee, and Tony Cárdenas D-Calif. are co-sponsors.

WATCH: How Big Data and Contact Tracking Can Help Fight Coronavirus

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