The Technology 202: Democrats introduce bill to protect data collected in coronavirus pandemic

with Tonya Riley

Coronavirus data is the new front in the Washington privacy battles.  

Democratic lawmakers from both chambers yesterday introduced legislation to place limits on how tech companies and public health agencies use smartphones and other digital tools to track the spread of the coronavirus. The bill would apply to a recent flood of Silicon Valley technologies coming to market amid the pandemic, including a recent partnership between Google and Apple to build tools alerting people if they’ve come into contact with someone who tested positive for covid-19. 

The bill would require Americans to consent to participate in these efforts, and it would prohibit any data collected to address the health crisis from being used for other purposes such as advertising. Republican lawmakers introduced legislation with some similar safeguards earlier this month. 

Unlike the Republican proposal, the Democrats’ bill aims to prevent government not just companies – from misusing any data collected related to the pandemic. The Democrats’ proposal also prohibits governments from requiring people to use the new technology to participate in an election, and it calls for regular reports to assess whether the technology is discriminating against any groups or otherwise impacting their civil rights.

The lawmakers say that more people might participate in digital contact tracing which some think could play a key role in reopening the economy if they know there are specific safeguards. 

This measure sets strict and straightforward privacy protections and promises: Your information will be used to stop the spread of this disease, and no more,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), who co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) and Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Suzan DelBene (Wash.). 

The pandemic is bringing fresh urgency to a years-long debate about a federal privacy law in Washington. 

The swift expansion of technologies leveraging Bluetooth and location data in the pandemic’s wake is raising new security and privacy concerns and highlighting the absence of federal laws dictating how tech companies can collect and use data about Americans. 

The United States has been much slower than other countries to embrace digital contact tracing and other surveillance technologies to enforce social distancing. But public officials across the country are using aggregated data from smartphones and tech companies to measure the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders. 

As local officials ease some of those restrictions, urgency is growing to ensure robust contact tracing is in place. And lawmakers say the tech industry has a role to play. 

“It’s our shared belief that swift passage of this legislation would go a long way towards establishing the trust American consumers need and which Big Tech has squandered, time and again   for digital contact tracing to be a worthwhile auxiliary to widespread testing and manual contact tracing,” Schakowsky said. 

Privacy advocates who have observed the surge of coronavirus-related surveillance in countries such as China, South Korea and Israel have warned that lawmakers need to implement safeguards to protect privacy during the crisis. 

The same disputes that have prevented federal privacy legislation from passing for years could derail this effort. 

There’s bipartisan sentiment that people should have a choice about whether to use digital tools that collect their data in an effort to slow the virsus’s spread. But despite bipartisan desire to create federal privacy standards after repeated tech company scandals, such rules have never materialized.

The Democrats’ coronavirus bill could inflame some partisan tensions. The bill would create a private right of action, which would allow individuals to bring a lawsuit against companies that violate their rights. Republicans and tech companies have previously resisted privacy legislation that includes such a provision. 

The Democrats’ proposal would also allow states to enforce their own privacy rules. Republicans and tech companies have previously pushed for legislation that would preempt state laws to avoid a patchwork of different privacy rules across the country.

It’s unclear whether Americans will get on board even if Congress does act. 

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that most are either unwilling or unable to participate in the Google-Apple effort because they don’t have a smartphone. 

There are also major questions about the efficacy of digital contact tracing. About 60 percent of the population in a given area would need to participate for these tools to be effective, according to a study by epidemiologists at Oxford University.

Privacy advocates have come out in support of the Democrats’ proposal. 

“As contact tracing apps and other types of COVID-19 surveillance become commonplace in the United States, this legislation will protect the privacy of Americans regardless of the type of technology used or who created it,”  said Sara Collins, policy counsel at Public Knowledge in a statement. “It is critical that Congress continue to work to prevent this type of corporate or government surveillance from becoming ubiquitous and compulsory.”

Several privacy advocates criticized the Republican bill for falling short on enforcement mechanisms.

Our top tabs

Amazon has been quietly lobbying against a Portland, Ore., law that would hurt its commercial interests in facial recognition technology.

The company spent $12,000 last year lobbying against legislation that would ban use of the technology by government and businesses in the city, Kate Kaye at One Zero reports

Banning business use goes a step further than proposed legislation in other areas, including Amazon’s home state of Washington, where the company largely stayed out of a recent legislative fight over facial recognition.  But Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software has signed on clients including the NFL and CBS. Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office also uses the system. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

“To be very blunt, they’re concerned about their bottom line,” said Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who supports the proposal and has met with Amazon. “They’re going to lose sales if they are not able to sell equipment that allows them to collect data.”

Hardesty says Amazon got involved to weaken the legislation, which privacy advocates have accused Microsoft of doing in Washington state.

Amazon was drafting its own federal facial recognition legislation to pitch to lawmakers, though the coronavirus pandemic has derailed the federal debate. 

Taiwan’s largest chip maker will announce plans to build a factory in Arizona.

The plant, which could open as soon as 2023, could accelerate efforts by the U.S. government to reduce the reliance of American companies on Asian suppliers, Bob Davis, Kate O’Keeffe and Asa Fitch at the Wall Street Journal report. Both the State and Commerce departments, which played a key role in efforts to secure American technologies from spying, are involved in the plans for the new plant. 

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is the world’s largest contract manufacturer of silicon chips. That makes its entrance into the U.S. market a boon for President Trump. Trump has prioritized cutting China and other national security threats out of American supply chains. 

“We shouldn’t have supply chains. We should have them all in the U.S.,” the president said on Fox Business on Thursday.

But it could also cause conflict with Intel, which also manufacturers in Arizona and has lobbied the Pentagon for a partnership, the Journal reports.

Airbnb is helping laid-off employees find new jobs.

It’s a novel turn for the traditionally cutthroat talent market of noncompetes and signing bonuses in Silicon Valley, Nitasha Tiku reports. 

Shortly after laying off employees earlier this month, chief executive Brian Chesky said the company would launch an opt-in “alumni talent directory” as well as use its recruiters to help the 1,900 employees find new jobs.

Three ex-Airbnb employees said they had already received messages about job openings through the board.

And other companies are following Airbnb’s lead:

Uber introduced a similar network “to give our former colleagues the attention from recruiters they deserve,” said Uber representative Lois Van Der Laan. Eventbrite and Bird, which also recently had layoffs, have also helped connect laid-off employees with other companies, including Facebook. Both Uber and Lyft have also redirected struggling delivery drivers to Amazon’s Flex service. 

But Airbnb’s efforts also highlight inequalities in tech’s workforce. Contractors were not included in Airbnb’s initial job outreach efforts, though the company says it’s working on adding them to the board.

Trump tracker

The Postal Service is seeking ways to charge Amazon more.

Agency employees tell Jacob Bogage and Josh Dawsey that it’s part of a bigger push from the president to radically reshape the agency.

President Trump has accused for years without evidence that the Postal Service undercharged Amazon, UPS and FedEx for “last-mile” deliveries. The Postal Service has traditionally rebuffed his criticism.

But the tide has shifted in the president’s favor after a Trump loyalist was recently appointed postmaster general. Every member of the agency’s bipartisan governing board is now a Trump appointee.

Analysts say that the price changes would hurt Amazon — but it would hurt small businesses without their own distribution networks even more. Amazon and other delivery companies would sooner build out their own last-mile networks than pay USPS more, analysts say, possibly further hurting the agency.

Hill happenings

Advocates urged House lawmakers to protect Internet and browser histories before reauthorizing vast spying powers.

The Senate passed its own version of a bill renewing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act yesterday, 80 to 16. But an amendment that would have curbed the ability to spy on Internet and browser history without a warrant wasn’t included.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who helped write the Senate amendment that was short one vote of passing, now wants the House to take it up:

The American Civil Liberties Union also urged the House to pass an amendment. 

Five senators want Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods to stop worker surveillance.

“The fact that Whole Foods has decided to heavily invest in systems to avoid unionization rather than improve the wages, hours, and working conditions of their employees demonstrates a reckless disregard for the welfare of your workforce,” Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to CEO John Mackey.

The letter follows a report last month that Whole Foods uses surveillance technology to map the risks of unionizing at a specific location. Senators also grilled Amazon earlier this month on whether it used the same technology to monitor warehouse employees trying to unionize. 

More from the Hill:

Inside the industry

Twitch announced the formation of a new group that brings together creators and policy experts to help make decisions on content policies.

The Amazon-owned streaming platform announced the eight-person council as it deals with rapid growth during the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah Perez at TechCrunch reports.

More from the industry:

With some help from Vogue and the CFDA, the e-commerce giant is opening a new store to showcase independent designers. Does this mark the moment the two worlds finally get hitched?

The New York Times

Rant and rave

Fashion might want to take a look at what Amazon’s involvement did to publishing, author Maris Kreizman notes:


The coronavirus pandemic is sparking baseless theories about the dangers of 5G. But the fear that wireless technology is slowly killing us isn’t new—and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The Atlantic


  • The Aspen Digital Institute will host an event with Facebook’s Oversight Board Monday at 3pm

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