Politics

Senators want to know all about Apple's COVID-19 app, too

Questions about Apple's app and website follow a similar inquiry into the COVID-19 screening tool from Alphabet subsidiary Verily.

Person wearing a mask walks in front of Apple logo

Apple's COVID-19 screening app was made in partnership with the CDC and the White House Task Force on Coronavirus.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

If you're a tech company building a seemingly altruistic COVID-19 screening tool, you may want to prepare yourself for some questions from senators concerned that you'll exploit the potentially sensitive information the tool collects.

Alphabet and its subsidiary Verily have already received two such letters about the Bay Area screening and testing effort the latter launched last month.

Today, Apple received its own list of questions about its newly launched COVID-19 screening app and website from a group of senators including Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The policymakers pressed Apple over the nature of its partnership with the federal government and asked how Apple plans to use the data that it gathers through the COVID-19 screening tool.

The tool, which was launched in partnership with the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, allows individuals to assess whether they should be tested for coronavirus.

The senators acknowledged that "technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector is a necessary component to combatting COVID-19," but added they don't want to see Americans "trade their privacy at the expense of public health needs."

"In the interest of Americans during these unprecedented times, all data collected via Apple's screening tools should remain confidential and must not be used for any commercial purposes in the future," they wrote.

They asked for more information about whether's Apple's tool falls under the jurisdiction of the country's major health data privacy law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It's an open question if data collected by screening tools like Apple's and Verily's fall under HIPAA's purview, or if Congress would need to draw up new privacy legislation to draw safeguards around similar health tools from major corporations.

Over the past several weeks, policymakers have increasingly raised questions around the safety and security of the litany of tools tech companies are creating to address the coronavirus crisis. In particular, Menendez, Harris, and Democrats Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Cory Booker have pummeled Alphabet subsidiary Verily with questions about its COVID-19 screening website, sending two letters over the course of a few weeks last month about whether Verily properly complies with existing health data privacy laws and whether the company will eventually monetize the data it collects.

The tech giants have quickly become instrumental players in the fight against coronavirus, launching tools, resources and millions of dollars in funding for efforts to beat back the spread of the fast-moving illness.

But their efforts have raised red flags for privacy hawks in Congress and beyond, who have warned that efforts to amass data about COVID-19 could ultimately hurt user privacy and allow the companies to capitalize on their ostensibly charitable efforts.

Reached for comment on Friday, Apple pointed Protocol to the landing page for its COVID-19 tool, which pledges that Apple is not collecting users' answers from the screening tool and will not collect personally identifiable information. And the website does not require any sign-in or association with a user's Apple ID.

Further, Apple said users' individual data is not shared with any governmental organization.

Updated with comment from Apple.

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