US senator demands Apple, Google guarantee on contact tracing privacy

WASHINGTON: Smartphone software makers Alphabet’s Google and Apple will have to convince the public that any contact tracing technology to track who has been exposed to the new coronavirus will not lead to a violation of their privacy, Richard Blumenthal said on Wednesday.

“Apple and Google have a lot of work to do to convince a rightfully sceptical public that they are fully serious about the privacy and security of their contact tracing efforts,” he said in a statement.

A critical factor in reopening economies shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic is the ability to identify who has come into contact with carriers so that public health officials can control a resurgence of the Covid-19 disease caused by the virus.

This contact tracing effort got a boost recently when Google and Apple said they were collaborating on technology to help identify people who have crossed paths with a contagious person and alert them.

“I urgently want to know how Apple and Google will assure that consumers’ privacy interests are strongly balanced with the legitimate needs of public health officials during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Blumenthal, who has been outspoken about privacy issues raised by the powerful tech companies.

“A public health crisis cannot be a pre-tense to pave over our privacy laws or legitimise tech companies’ intrusive data collection about American’s personal lives,” he said.

Apple and Google had no comment on Blumenthal’s remarks but pointed to a joint release which said that “privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance.”

The companies said they started developing the technology in March to streamline technical differences between Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Android that had stymied the interoperation of some existing contact tracing apps.

The companies said that the technology – planned to be released in mid-May – would not track users’ locations but their interactions, that the interactions would be anonymised and that nothing would be monetised.

Dr Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, told Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” that he had not spoken with Google or Apple but believed that the public would accept contact tracing apps more easily if they were not run by the federal government.

“I think they’d feel better about it if it’s private,” he said.

Apple and Google have taken many positive steps to protect privacy, said Sara Collins, policy counsel at the advocacy group Public Knowledge.

“While this is a promising first step, there are other controls that will need to be put in place to make this truly privacy protective,” she said, including limits on sharing data and deleting data once it is no longer needed.

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