Coronavirus Digital Privacy Democrats Bill

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Democrats unveil coronavirus data privacy bill that is a direct rebuke of Republicans

It diverges from a Republican-backed bill in several ways.

May 14, 2020, 4:35 pm*

Tech

Andrew Wyrich 

Andrew Wyrich

A group of Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives on Thursday unveiled a coronavirus data privacy bill that directly squares off against one pushed by Republicans earlier this month.

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The bill, called the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, diverges from the Republican bill in a number of key ways including: the ability for consumers to sue companies that violate it, and not preempting state-level laws that might go further than it.

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Both bills come as companies and government agencies are rolling out apps to help trace the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The differences between the two coronavirus data privacy bills are along the same lines of differences between data privacy bills previously floated by Democrats and Republicans.

The Democrats’ bill was spearheaded by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Rep. Ann Eshoo (D-Calif.), Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

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Specifically, the bill would require companies using the tracing technology to only collect data from consumers that is “necessary, proportionate, and limited for a good faith public health purpose,” and would require them to only disclose the data to a government agency if it is a public health authority and is “made in solely for good faith public health purposes and in direct response to exigent circumstances.”

The bill also calls for any collected data to be deleted 60 days after the end of the public health emergency and for reports on how the data being collected is affecting civil rights.

Notably, unlike the Republican bill, it allows for a private right of action, or the ability to sue tech companies or a government entity that violates the law.

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In another stark contrast to the Republican bill, the one unveiled by Democrats on Thursday would not preempt any potential or existing state-level laws if they are stronger.

The bill garnered strong reviews from a number of advocacy groups.

Caitriona Fitzgerald, the interim associate director and policy director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, praised the bill for limiting the data that would be collected.

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“The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act shows that privacy and public health are complementary goals. The bill requires companies to limit the collection of health data to only what is necessary for public health purposes, and crucially, holds companies accountable if they fail to do so,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Gaurav Laroia, the senior policy counsel at Free Press Action, said the bill “would put many necessary protections in place to make sure the technology is used responsibly.”

“This bill makes it clear that we don’t need to completely sacrifice privacy, data protection, and civil rights to make these tools effective. And for them to work, a large majority of cellphone users would need to use them. Without [the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act] protections to secure this information, people will be reluctant to use contact-tracing applications in the numbers needed to make the technology useful.”

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Public Knowledge, a digital rights group, commended the bill for providing “meaningful” privacy protections.

“As contact-tracing apps and other types of COVID-19 surveillance become commonplace in the United States, this legislation will protect the privacy of Americans regardless of the type of technology used or who created it,” Sara Collins, a policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “It is critical that Congress continue to work to prevent this type of corporate or government surveillance from becoming ubiquitous and compulsory.”

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*First Published: May 14, 2020, 4:28 pm