Apr 30, 2020 - Technology

GOP senators unveil bill to police data use during pandemic

A photo of Sen. Roger Wicker during a hearing.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.

Senate Republicans on Thursday announced a measure to police how companies use Americans' personal data to track the spread of the coronavirus.

The big picture: Tech firms are increasingly looking to use data to combat the pandemic. Lead bill sponsor Roger Wicker said in a statement that this data "has great potential to help us contain the virus and limit future outbreaks, but we need to ensure that individuals’ personal information is safe from misuse."

Details: The COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act is meant to give consumers more control over how their health, geolocation and proximity data is collected and used during the pandemic.

  • It would require companies to obtain consent to collect or transfer that data for the purposes of tracking the spread of the disease.
  • Companies also would have to explain to consumers how the data will be handled, and how long it will be retained.
  • The data would have to be deleted or de-identified when it is no longer being used for the public health emergency.
  • The FTC and state attorneys general would handle enforcement.

Yes, but: The bill specifically focuses on data collected in connection with the pandemic and does not apply to other types of health data. That limited scope means even data that may indirectly relate to people's coronavirus infection status wouldn't be protected, argued Public Knowledge policy counsel Sara Collins.

  • "Companies may still profit from selling health information or geolocation data, and are allowed to infer who has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus," she said. "The only ‘restrictions’ apply to data specifically collected for coronavirus contact tracing."

Between the lines: The bill sponsors didn't get any Democrats to join before announcing it. It's being led by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Wicker and Republican Sens. John Thune, Jerry Moran and Marsha Blackburn.

  • Remember, Wicker was working with Ranking Member Maria Cantwell last year on bipartisan privacy legislation that led to dueling partisan efforts after Cantwell introduced a Democrat-only bill in the fall.
  • "Wicker and the Republicans were smart to get a jump on a privacy issue on Americans’ minds," an industry observer tracking privacy on the Hill told Axios.
  • Cantwell's office did not respond to a request for comment.
  • The Republican bill would preempt state laws, a sticking point for Democrats in previous privacy legislation talks.

What they're saying: Democratic lawmakers who have called for federal privacy protections said they were pleased to see Wicker take up the issue and want to work across the aisle on it.

  • "As we tackle this international crisis, we need to manage public health concerns with how governments and tech companies are collecting and using our data," Rep. Suzan DelBene, who has pushed the Trump administration to adopt data privacy principles related to the pandemic, said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the chairman and other leaders on this issue.”
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, "I share concerns about misuse and abuse of health and location data collected during the pandemic. As just one example, there is certainly a need for clear guardrails concerning information resulting from testing and contact tracing."
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