Protecting Civil Liberties During COVID-19: DelBene, Eshoo, Schakowsky, Blumenthal, and Warner Introduce the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act
As tech companies and public health agencies deploy new tools to fight the spread of COVID-19 – including contact tracing apps, digital monitoring, home tests, and vaccine appointment booking – Representatives Suzan DelBene (WA-01), Anna Eshoo (CA-18), and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09) and Senators Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Mark Warner (VA) introduced the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act to set strong and enforceable privacy and data security rights for health information.
After decades of data misuse, breaches, and privacy intrusions, Americans are reluctant to trust tech firms to protect their sensitive health information – according to a recent poll, more than half of Americans would not use a contact tracing app and similar tools from Google and Apple over privacy concerns. The bicameral Public Health Emergency Privacy Act would protect Americans who use this kind of technology during the pandemic and safeguard civil liberties. Strengthened public trust will empower health authorities and medical experts to leverage new health data and apps to fight COVID-19.
“Technology has become one of our greatest tools in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic but we need to build trust with the broader public if we are going to reach its full potential. Americans need to be certain their sensitive personal information will be protected when using tracing apps and other COVID-19 response technology and this pandemic-specific privacy legislation will help build that trust,” said DelBene. “Data privacy should not end with the pandemic. We need comprehensive privacy reform to protect Americans at all times, including state preemption to create a strong, uniform national standard. I hope that this crisis has shed light on the lack of adequate digital privacy policies in our country and look forward to working with these lawmakers and others to create the necessary standards moving forward.”
“I’m exceedingly proud of the American innovators, many of whom are in my congressional district, who have built technologies to combat the coronavirus. As these technologies are used, they must be coupled with policies to protect the civil liberties that define who we are as a nation,” said Eshoo. “The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act is a critical bill that will prohibit privacy invasions by preventing misuse of pandemic-related data for unrelated purposes like marketing, prohibiting the data from being used in discriminatory ways, and requiring data security and integrity measures. The legislation will give the American people confidence to use technologies and systems that can aid our efforts to combat the pandemic.”
“As we continue to respond to the devastating suffering caused by COVID-19, our country’s first and foremost public health response must be testing, testing, testing, and manual contact tracing. Digital contact tracing can and should complement these efforts, but it is just that – complimentary. However, if we do pursue digital contact tracing, consumers need clearly-defined privacy rights and strong enforcement to safeguard these rights. I am proud to re-introduce this bill with my friend and fellow Energy & Commerce Subcommittee Chairwoman Eshoo and Congresswoman DelBene, along with Senators Blumenthal and Warner,” said Schakowsky. “It’s our shared belief that the Trump administration missed an opportunity when it failed to advocate for swift passage of this legislation. Based on how poorly the Trump administration’s contact tracing scheme went, we all know this legislation would go a long way towards establishing the trust American consumers need – and which Big Tech has squandered, time and again – for digital contact tracing to be a worthwhile auxiliary to the Biden Administration’s plan for widespread testing and manual contact tracing.”
“Technologies like contact tracing, home testing, and online appointment booking are absolutely essential to stop the spread of this disease, but Americans are rightly skeptical that their sensitive health data will be kept safe and secure,” Blumenthal said. “Legal safeguards protecting consumer privacy failed to keep pace with technology, and that lapse is costing us in the fight against COVID-19. This measure sets strict and straightforward privacy protections and promises: Your information will be used to stop the spread of this disease, and no more. The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act’s commitment to civil liberties is an investment in our public health.”
“Our health privacy laws have not kept pace with what Americans have come to expect for their sensitive health data,” Warner said. “Strong privacy protections for COVID health data will only be more vital as we move forward with vaccination efforts and companies begin experimenting with things like ‘immunity passports’ to gate access to facilities and services. Absent a clear commitment from policymakers to improving our health privacy laws, as this important legislation seeks to accomplish, I fear that creeping privacy violations and discriminatory uses of health data could become the new status quo in health care and public health.”
The bill is co-sponsored in the Senate by Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Edward Markey (MA), Tammy Baldwin (WI), Mazie Hirono (HI), Cory Booker (NJ), Robert Menendez (NJ), Angus King (ME), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Dick Durbin (IL).
The bill is co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by Don Beyer (VA-08), Jerry McNerney (CA-09), Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Bobby Rush (IL-01), Peter Welch (VT-AL), Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), Doris Matsui (CA-06), Ted Lieu (CA-33), Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Ro Khanna (CA-17), Jesús ''Chuy'' García (IL-04), Stephen Lynch (MA-08), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Debbie Dingell (MI-12), and Peter DeFazio (OR-04).
The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act would:
The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act is endorsed by Access Now, Electronic Privacy and Information Center (EPIC), the Center for Digital Democracy, Color of Change, Common Sense Media, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and Public Knowledge.