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Technology Senators raise privacy questions about Google's COVID-19 tracker

18:40  08 april  2020
18:40  08 april  2020 Source:   cnet.com

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Two US senators want to make sure that Google's COVID-19 tracker is not infringing on millions of people's personal data. In a letter sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday, senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal raised questions about how the tech giant's tracker is ensuring that the location data it's collecting and presenting would maintain privacy.

a close up of a sign: Senators want to ensure that Google's COVID-19 tracker is keeping privacy in mind. James Martin/CNET © Provided by CNET Senators want to ensure that Google's COVID-19 tracker is keeping privacy in mind. James Martin/CNET

The Trump administration has called on tech companies to provide data for tracking the coronavirus pandemic, hoping that logs of people's location can give insight on social distancing and the disease's spread. Location data has been used in South Korea and China to help contain and track COVID-19 cases, and the US government is looking to do the same as it deals with the pandemic.

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a close up of a sign: Senators want to ensure that Google's COVID-19 tracker is keeping privacy in mind.  © James Martin/CNET

Senators want to ensure that Google's COVID-19 tracker is keeping privacy in mind.

Last Friday, Google announced its own COVID-19 tracker, using location data it's collected from its millions of users to help health officials make policy decisions and measure social distancing effects.

The data is collected from people who have their Location History setting activated on their phones, which is typically off by default. In its announcement, the tech giant said that no personally identifiable information was collected for this tracker.

Still, Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, have their concerns with Google using a massive amount of location data for tracking the outbreak.

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The two lawmakers raised points about how researchers have easily de-anonymized location data several times, since the datasets are often tied to frequently visited spots like homes, workplaces and places of worship.

"Location data sharing carries with it myriad risks, and while we commend Google's efforts to assist in combatting the coronavirus pandemic, we caution you against steps that risk undermining your users' privacy," the senators wrote in the letter.

The senators asked Pichai if Google plans on sharing any personal data or information that is not completely anonymized, and if it's gathering data for this tracker through measures outside of the Location History tool.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter is also questioning the effectiveness of Google's tracker, asking how it would account for rural regions that do not have the same connectivity as others, as well as non-Google device users.

The lawmakers also want to know how public health officials are supposed to interpret this data, and how Google is receiving feedback from public health officials.

Markey and Blumenthal are expecting answers from Google by April 14, according to the letter.

Apple and Google's COVID-19 contact tracing tech is ready .
Today, Apple and Google are releasing their COVID-19 contact tracing technology to public health agencies (PHAs) around the world. So far, 22 countries on five continents have requested the API, which will allow PHAs to develop their own contact tracing apps. Apple and Google have been collaborating on the Exposure Notifications System API for several weeks. As planned, the API will use Bluetooth to exchange keys between phones. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can inform their contact tracing app, which will use the API to send exposure notifications to people they may have come in contact with.

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This is interesting!