U.S. senators offer privacy bill for COVID-19 contact tracing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of Republican U.S. senators said Thursday they would introduce legislation to address consumer privacy concerns surrounding technology companies’ efforts to help build contact tracing apps to fight the new coronavirus outbreak.

Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the Commerce Committee, and other key Republicans introduced the bill that would “hold businesses accountable to consumers if they use personal data to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The bill would allow technology companies to develop “platforms that could trace the virus and help flatten the curve and stop the spread – and maintaining privacy protections for U.S. citizens,” said Republican Senator John Thune.

Alphabet’s Google and Apple have been working with public health experts and researchers to write apps that people can use to notify those they have come in contact with if they come down with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

This kind of “contact tracing” is deemed necessary to reopen the U.S. economy, which has been hard hit by shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the disease which has killed more than 60,000 Americans.

Other co-sponsors of the bill are Senators Jerry Moran, who called the tech companies’ efforts “well intentioned” and Marsha Blackburn.

“As Congress seeks to enact a uniform comprehensive data privacy and security framework, thoughtful and targeted legislative efforts, like this bill, will address specific consumer privacy violations resulting from COVID-19,” Moran said in a statement.

The bill would require companies to obtain express consent from people if data about their health, location or proximity to another person is collected, require companies to disclose what will happen with their data, require companies to take steps to ensure that anonymized data does not allow individuals to be identified and require companies to delete all personally identifiable information once it is no longer used to track the spread of the coronavirus.

State attorneys general would enforce the bill.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.

The companies have previously said that “privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance” in building the apps. They have also said that users’ interactions would be tracked, not their locations, and that nothing would be monetized.

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