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Senator asks Google and Apple CEOs to be personally liable for COVID-19 tracking project privacy

The tracing tech poses "serious concerns" in privacy, Sen. Hawley says.

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

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai have been asked to take personal responsibility for protecting the privacy of customers in their companies' efforts to track people's movements during the spread of COVID-19. In a letter published Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley said the tech giants' project to trace when and where US residents interact with each other during the coronavirus pandemic "raises serious concerns, especially because of Google's poor record on privacy."

Hawley is asking for Cook and Pichai to not "hide behind a corporate shield" and to "stake your personal finances on the security of this project."

"A project this unprecedented requires an unprecedented assurance on your part," his letter says. "Make a commitment that you and other executives will be personally liable if you stop protecting privacy, such as by granting advertising companies access to the interface once the pandemic is over." 

Despite the commitment to anonymize data, Hawley also said data could be reidentified by comparing it with another data set. Pairing the data being collected with GPS data and Wi-Fi positioning data "could greatly erode privacy by making precise surveillance much easier," Hawley wrote.

Google and Apple had earlier announced a joint project to use phone signals to track people so they can be warned when they've come into contact with someone who's tested positive for the coronavirus. The project will start in May, and will see the two companies build the contact-tracing capability into both iOS and the Android operating system.

Apple and Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.