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Amid Pandemic, a Push for Digital Privacy Protections

Public Citizen News / May-June 2020

By David Rosen

This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

With people throughout the U.S. under stay-at-home orders to avoid spreading the coronavirus, all of us are more dependent than ever on online purchases, digital services and delivery apps to meet our daily needs. But that increased dependence comes with significant privacy risks.

Public Citizen is leading a coalition of 15 groups that are urging Congress to secure our data and protect our privacy during the coronavirus pandemic. The goal is to ensure that the public health emergency and economic meltdown don’t metastasize into a digital privacy disaster.

Big Tech companies like Google and Amazon collect troves of personal information that can be used to track and manipulate individuals in unprecedented ways. New shopping patterns, work-from-home tools and distance learning apps are creating reams of data about our families – data that can reveal a great deal about with whom we live, where our friends and family are at any moment and even our health status.

A person’s job prospects and their ability to get loans, buy insurance or obtain other financial products could be compromised if their data ends up in the wrong hands.

Existing laws and regulations offer few privacy protections for this data, which is collected routinely by tech companies and online vendors. Public Citizen and its allies have fought for a baseline federal privacy law for years, but Congress has failed to pass one.

Already, big corporations and the Trump administration are exploring new ways to collect and process data en masse to address the unfolding public health and economic crises, whether it’s through tracking our location, purchases or health information.

The CARES Act, the third coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March, allocated $500 million for a public health surveillance system. Around the same time, the White House reached out to tech companies with access to huge troves of consumer data for help during the crisis. And in April, Google and Apple launched a new system for tracing the spread of the coronavirus by allowing users to share data via Bluetooth with government health agencies.

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to track the location of individuals who test positive for COVID-19. But because of the huge risks, new data collection, processing and sharing in response to the pandemic must come with strong new privacy protections.

“We do not have to become a data dystopia, but Congress must act quickly to stop the coronavirus from turning us into one,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, digital rights advocate for Public Citizen.

Here are some general principles Public Citizen and its allies proposed to Congress in March that would help curtail those abuses:

  • First, extraordinary public health measures involving data collection introduced during the crisis should be limited in scope and duration, so they do not become permanent features of law. Data collected as part of those extraordinary measures should not be used or repurposed for marketing, advertising or other commercial purposes – or any unrelated research purposes without informed consent.
  • Second, data collection and processing must be transparent, and individuals should be clearly informed about the purpose of data collection and how long their data will be retained. All newly collected or processed data must be kept confidential and secure – and should be deleted automatically following the pandemic.
  • Third, we must hold companies accountable for violating these principles or failing to keep our data secure. That means penalties must be severe enough to outweigh the financial benefits of breaking the law, which are likely to be considerable.

“Living through a pandemic already feels like an apocalyptic movie; nobody wants it to feel like an episode of ‘Black Mirror’, too,” Peterson-Cassin said, referencing the contemporary, tech-focused version of the popular 1960s ‘The Twilight Zone.’ “We may already be setting the stage for a slate of terrifying episodes about how technology can be abused during a global health crisis.”