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COVID-19 tracking efforts pose a privacy risk, senator says

Sen. Ed Markey wants to make sure that technology used to track the pandemic won't be abused for years to come.

The US government is considering using people's phones to track the coronavirus spread.
James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Governments are looking to leverage phone tracking capabilities to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading, but using that technology poses serious privacy risks, a US senator warned Thursday. 

In a letter to Michael Kratsios, chief technology officer of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Sen. Ed Markey raised concerns about how location data can be used by the federal government. 

"Unless carefully circumscribed, location data can reveal deeply sensitive information about people's private lives," Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in the letter. "The Administration must take extreme care not to implement location data-use policies that run the risk of violating Americans' privacy."

The Office of Science and Technology Policy didn't respond to a request for comment.  

Governments in China, Singapore and South Korea have used phone location data to track coronavirus patients, which has helped develop measures and policies to keep groups quarantined and prevent the virus from spreading further. It's been cited as a successful method, and the US government has considered doing the same, according to The Washington Post

Data privacy has taken a backseat amid the pandemic, with the primary focus on saving lives and slowing down the rapid spread. On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said it is waiving penalties for privacy violations because it would allow more ways for doctors to video-chat with patients. 

Phones have served as a valuable tracking tool for the advertising industry for years, with apps collecting location data from millions of devices and selling it for marketing purposes. The US government wants to leverage that same technology to control the coronavirus pandemic and has turned to companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and IBM to help provide that data, according to reports. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied that Facebook was having those conversations with the US government, while Google said it was "exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19." 

Apple said it took part in the White House's COVID-19 task force meetings but that the company is primarily focused on providing technology for video communications for doctors and schools.

The other companies didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Markey warned that location data could reveal sensitive details like a person's job, political affiliations and religious practices, even if it is anonymized and aggregated. Researchers have found that it's fairly simple to tie anonymous location data to specific people based on their whereabouts. 

The senator asked the Trump administration to describe the location data that it's considering using, how it's assuring that the data cannot be de-anonymized, how the data will be secured and who will have access to it. 

He also wanted to know if the government would stop the program once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. 

"Although I agree that we must use technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector to combat the coronavirus, we cannot embrace action that represents a wholesale privacy invasion, particularly when it involves highly sensitive and personal location information," Markey said. "I urge you to balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.