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Senators propose COVID-19 contact-tracing privacy bill

The bipartisan effort aims to protect users as technology is used to trace the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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Apple and Google have created technology to track COVID-19's spread.

Angela Lang/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

A group of US senators on Monday introduced a bill to regulate contact-tracing apps, aiming to protect user privacy as technology is used to track the spread of the novel coronavirus

The proposal is called the Exposure Notification Privacy Act and seeks to ensure that people couldn't be forced to use the technology. It also would make sure that the data isn't used for advertising or commercial purposes and that people can delete their data. The bill seeks to require that notification systems only rely on "an authorized diagnosis" that came from medical organization. 

"Public health needs to be in charge of any notification system so we protect people's privacy and help them know when there is a warning that they might have been exposed to COVID-19," Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington and one of the bill's sponsors, said in a comment provided to CNET. 

Cantwell's co-sponsor on the bill is Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, also has given her support. 

Google, which is working on technology for contact tracing along with Apple, declined to comment. The offices of Cassidy and Klobuchar didn't respond to requests for comment, nor did Apple. 

The coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Since that time, it's become a full-blown pandemic, infecting over 6.2 million people and killing over 370,000 around the globe. The outbreak has caused cities and entire countries to issue lockdowns, shuttering stores, canceling events and forcing citizens to stay at home to help contain the coronavirus. Some locations have started re-opening, but experts warn the risk of infection remains.

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Companies have been working on technology to speed up the contact tracing process, which in turn would slow the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing, done the normal, old-school way, is labor intensive, with people tracking down everyone who's been in touch with someone who test positive for the disease. 

Apple and Google in April said they were working together on a major effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 that uses signals from people's phones to warn them if they've been in contact with someone over the past 14 days who's tested positive for the disease. The technology became available to government health authorities in late May, with Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina among the first to use it. 

The joint project takes advantage of two of the world's most popular operating systems -- Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- to potentially reach billions of people. The tools will use Bluetooth radio technology to support apps that will be developed by public health authorities, and iPhones and devices powered by Google's Android software will be able to communicate with each other.

Privacy watchers and civil liberties advocates have warned that relying on technology for contact tracing will create a disparity on who is counted when governments make public health decisions. Apple and Google have sought to alleviate fears about privacy by tweaking how the system will work. For one, it will be opt-in, meaning it won't be turned on by default. 

Still, many believe regulation is key for making sure the systems stay secure. 

"We need to regulate apps that provide COVID-19 exposure notification to protect a user's privacy, prevent data misuse and preserve our civil rights -- and this bill offers a roadmap for doing all three," Public Knowledge Policy Counsel Sara Collins said in a statement. "The bill marks a valuable first step in the long road ahead to protecting Americans' data." 

The Washington Post earlier reported news of the bill. 

Update, 5:10 p.m. PT: Adds confirmation of bill being proposed, along with quotes. 
Update, 12:55 p.m. PT on June 2: Adds Google declining to comment.