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Power

COVID-19 may push Congress to tighten online privacy — or stoke old feuds

A group of powerful Senate Republicans is looking to push coronavirus-related data privacy provisions through the next economic stimulus package.

Roger Wicker

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker announced Thursday that he and other key Republicans on the committee will introduce legislation to regulate virus tracking.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up as a new chapter in the fight over sweeping federal online privacy legislation that grew out of the 2016 election before stalling, dramatically and repeatedly. Now, a group of powerful Senate Republicans is looking to push coronavirus-related data privacy provisions through the next economic stimulus package.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker's announcement Thursday that he and other key Republicans on the committee will introduce legislation to regulate virus tracking signaled new congressional energy to pass a narrowly tailored privacy bill in light of a larger global reckoning over how governments and companies use data to surveil and potentially defeat the virus.

A Senate aide told Protocol that the lawmakers may seek to roll the COVID-19 data privacy legislation into the upcoming "Phase 4" package, which lawmakers are already feuding over, if Democrats get on board. That could make it much more likely to pass.

The bill, obtained by Protocol and circulated to stakeholders Thursday night, would draw new safeguards around any personal health, geolocation and proximity data used for coronavirus-related projects, a much narrower approach than the long-debated comprehensive federal privacy bill.

But it's the most significant sign of life for any privacy bill in months, as bipartisan talks had stalled over disagreements around whether privacy legislation would override state laws (a Republican priority) and whether it would allow individuals to sue companies (a Democratic ask). The jumbled effort to come up with privacy legislation has dragged on since Cambridge Analytica, even as the European Union stiffened its rules and tech companies focused on lobbying state by state.

"As the coronavirus continues to take a heavy toll on our economy and American life, government officials and health care professionals have rightly turned to data to help fight this global pandemic," Wicker, of Mississippi, said in a statement. "This data has great potential to help us contain the virus and limit future outbreaks, but we need to ensure that individuals' personal information is safe from misuse."

The senators could capitalize on the newfound scrutiny of coronavirus-related technologies to push through a few of their broader priorities. Significantly, the provisions would "preempt," or override, any state laws. Democrats have long railed against preemption, saying it prevents states from passing even tougher privacy laws of their own. The tech industry on the whole has fought hard for one national standard, saying it's harder to do business with a patchwork of rules.

Aaron Cooper, vice president of global policy for software trade association BSA, said the legislation could help ensure all companies "play by the same rules and make sure consumers across the country have the same expectations." The bill, he said, "stands for the proposition that we shouldn't be sacrificing privacy or security while we're responding to the COVID crisis." BSA counts Salesforce, Microsoft, Intel and Adobe as members.

The legislation would apply to projects that use data to track the spread of the virus, measure whether individuals are complying with social distancing guidelines, and alert individuals when they've potentially been exposed.

It would prevent companies from repurposing data they collect for those projects, and it would bar companies from collecting more data than they need. It would also require companies to protect the security of the data collected for COVID-19 projects.

"These limitations will help ensure that companies don't take advantage of people's very real need and desire for information and services during this emergency," said Michelle Richardson, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's data and privacy project.


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Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a key Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said in a statement that he agrees "the crisis has made urgently clear the need for strong, reliable protections for privacy and security of personal data."

"I share concerns about misuse and abuse of health and location data collected during the pandemic," Blumenthal said. "As just one example, there is certainly a need for clear guardrails concerning information resulting from testing and contact tracing."

The committee is not dropping its commitment to someday passing the country's first comprehensive privacy law.

"As Congress seeks to enact a uniform comprehensive data privacy and security framework, thoughtful and targeted legislative efforts, like this bill, will address specific consumer privacy violations resulting from COVID-19," said Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, one of the bill's co-sponsors.

People

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Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

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Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

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Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

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Politics

Silicon Valley is cracking down on Congress

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Photo: Tobias Hase/Getty Images

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And now, the bigger-than-ever Silicon Valley is flexing its muscles with impunity as companies cut off violent extremists and wield the power of their political donations, acting more like a government than the U.S. government itself. They're leaving Republicans and Democrats more frustrated and powerless than ever in their wake.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

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Photo: Reverend Raphael Warnock/Flickr

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Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.

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Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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