On Thursday, Democrats from both houses of Congress introduced the Public Health Privacy Act, which aims to protect the type of health data consumers can share with contact tracking apps and hopefully address privacy concerns that many Americans address would hesitate to download them in the first place.
“This measure establishes strict and straightforward protection and promises of privacy: your information is used to stop the spread of this disease, and nothing more,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal in a press release. Together with Senator Mark Warner and representatives Anna Eshoo, Jan Schakowsky and Suzan DelBene, he sponsored the bill.
The Public Health Privacy Act would impose several guidelines that determine how consumer health data is collected and used during a public health emergency. It would prescribe “sensible data security” for technology companies that collect this data and oblige them to delete it after the crisis has ended. Data collected for public health efforts could not be used by non-health government agencies or for commercial purposes such as advertising or e-commerce.
This legislation would also not force consumers to adopt digital exposure tracking technology such as the APIs that are currently being developed by Apple and Google for use by health authorities. In particular, the draft law states that officials cannot make a person’s ability to vote in elections dependent on the use of contact tracking apps.
While the effectiveness of efforts to track digital exposure largely depends on how many people sign up, the demand for voluntary participation could largely dispel Americans’ concerns about the use of their health data about privacy. A recent one joint survey Researchers from the University of Maryland and the Washington Post found that about half of Americans either do not or cannot download this proposed technology to map the spread of the coronavirus.
To track the virus, apps that use Apple and Google’s contact tracking APIs use random Bluetooth identifiers to exchange information between your phone and other devices that have been in Bluetooth range for the past two weeks. If a person tests positive for covid-19 and logs this information in the app, it sends a notification to nearby users (within six feet of the person) of their possible contact with an infected person. These identifiers change every 10-20 minutes Apple said makes it impossible to track and no information is centralized on a government server.
This contact tracking technology differs from the type of apps in which it is deployed India, Russia, and the UKthat have been privacy nightmares. However, this added security from Google and Apple means little if people don’t trust Big Tech enough to download the app first.
“We share the belief that swift adoption of these laws would help build the confidence that American consumers need – and has wasted big tech over and over again – to make digital contact tracking a worthwhile tool for extensive testing and testing manual testing is contact tracking, ”said Schakowsky in a press release.