As the US maybe gets serious about coronavirus-tracking apps, Congress wakes up to the privacy risks

Just what will happen to all that tasty location and contact data?


A bi-partisan group of US senators are preparing a new bill that would ensure privacy protections in coronavirus tracking apps, as legislative interest grows in what contact-tracing will entail.

The “Exposure Notification Privacy Act” is designed to make sure that the vast quantities of data that are expected to be generated from millions of people downloading and using tracing apps as a way of limited exposure to the coronavirus does not find its way into commercial databases.

Sponsors of the bill include Democratic Senators Maria Cantell (WA) and Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Republican Bill Cassidy (LA). While the full text of the bill has not been published yet, the senators’ offices have detailed its broad strokes.

A mobile phone collecting a woman's profile information

Privacy activists prep legal challenge against UK plan to keep coronavirus contact-tracing data for two decades

READ MORE

The use of any such app would be voluntary and require an opt-in for any data gathered, that commercial use of the data produced by any app would be prohibited, users can delete their data, and any contact-tracing apps would only accept an authorized diagnosis of coronavirus.

Although Apple and Google have worked together on a privacy-respecting set of APIs that would allow people to self-report a positive test for COVID-19, apps that build on top of the framework may take a different approach.

There is also the fact that many tech companies have become expert at taking whatever databases they can get hold of and find ways to tie them to their existing information sources. One of the more valuable data points for such firms is location - as it allows them to give advertisers the ability to target people precisely and geographically. As such, a vast database of people’s daily movements would potentially be extremely valuable.

Healthcare history

“The important thing we wanted to get done... is make sure the privacy protections are in place,” Cantwell told The Washington Post.

Cantwell also noted that she would be wary of using any tracing app before regulations over how the data can be used are in place. “We’re all irritated our browser history might be sold a thousand times over. But when it’s your healthcare history, it’s a whole new realm.”

The bill is not the only one being pushed in Congress at the moment focussed on protecting citizens in their use of such apps.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act [PDF] - also bi-partisan - was introduced in the House last month and would require companies to limit the collection of health data to only what is necessary for public health purposes, as well as mandate that any such data was deleted within 60 days of the end of a public health emergency.

Last month Senate Republicans announced The COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act which would also require an opt-in for data gathering and would require the data to be anonymized but would not restrict data usage by commercial companies. ®

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Drone ship carrying yet more drones launches in China
    Zhuhai Cloud will carry 50 flying and diving machines it can control with minimal human assistance

    Chinese academics have christened an ocean research vessel that has a twist: it will sail the seas with a complement of aerial and ocean-going drones and no human crew.

    The Zhu Hai Yun, or Zhuhai Cloud, launched in Guangzhou after a year of construction. The 290-foot-long mothership can hit a top speed of 18 knots (about 20 miles per hour) and will carry 50 flying, surface, and submersible drones that launch and self-recover autonomously. 

    According to this blurb from the shipbuilder behind its construction, the Cloud will also be equipped with a variety of additional observational instruments "which can be deployed in batches in the target sea area, and carry out task-oriented adaptive networking to achieve three-dimensional view of specific targets." Most of the ship is an open deck where flying drones can land and be stored. The ship is also equipped with launch and recovery equipment for its aquatic craft. 

    Continue reading
  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading
  • Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation
    Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

    Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

    That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

    The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

    Continue reading
  • SEC probes Musk for not properly disclosing Twitter stake
    Meanwhile, social network's board rejects resignation of one its directors

    America's financial watchdog is investigating whether Elon Musk adequately disclosed his purchase of Twitter shares last month, just as his bid to take over the social media company hangs in the balance. 

    A letter [PDF] from the SEC addressed to the tech billionaire said he "[did] not appear" to have filed the proper form detailing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter "required 10 days from the date of acquisition," and asked him to provide more information. Musk's shares made him one of Twitter's largest shareholders. The letter is dated April 4, and was shared this week by the regulator.

    Musk quickly moved to try and buy the whole company outright in a deal initially worth over $44 billion. Musk sold a chunk of his shares in Tesla worth $8.4 billion and bagged another $7.14 billion from investors to help finance the $21 billion he promised to put forward for the deal. The remaining $25.5 billion bill was secured via debt financing by Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Barclays, and others. But the takeover is not going smoothly.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022