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Senate Democrats raise privacy concerns with Google about coronavirus screening service

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A coronavirus screening service launched by Google's sister company this week is raising red flags on Capitol Hill, where five senior Senate Democrats are questioning whether the tech giant is properly safeguarding patients' data.

Lawmakers' concerns center on the tech giant's new tool that allows people in the San Francisco Bay Area to input their symptoms, and if they show signs of coronavirus, obtain testing. Verily, the health subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet, unveiled the portal Monday after President Donald Trump touted it days earlier.

But congressional Democrats including New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, say they aren't clear what Google plans to do with the data it collects - and whether information the company obtains, or possibly harnesses from users' browsing habits, might be used for a range of purposes that people might not expect.

To that end, lawmakers asked Google as well as the Trump administration in letters Wednesday to explain the privacy protections in place and how Google's effort would be monitored going forward.

"We are concerned that neither the [Trump] administration nor Google has fully contemplated the range of threats to Americans' personally identifiable information," lawmakers wrote.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Verily, the Google subsidiary that is operating the service, reiterated in a blog post Wednesday that it is the entity collecting data, not Google, and information from the two is not linked.

"We do not combine this data with an individual's Google account, and were we to ever wish to do so, individuals would need to provide separate and explicit consent," Verily said.

The White House also did not immediate respond. Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sherrod Brown of Ohio also signed the letter.

As soon as Google announced its coronavirus-screening service, it found itself mired in political controversy: The site differed in key ways from the service that Trump initially previewed publicly, leading to a behind-the-scenes scramble by Google leaders to match their visions before unveiling their covid-19 screener, named after the disease coronavirus causes.

To use the service, patients have to create or log into their Google accounts and answer key questions about their symptoms and general health.

In handling that information, Verily pledges on its site it is "committed to maintaining high privacy standards and keeping your data safe." Troubling watchdogs and regulators, however, is language elsewhere indicating data collected by the company may be "shared with certain service providers engaged to perform services on behalf of Verily, including Google," for a range of purposes.

Senate Democrats asked Google to elaborate on what will happen to data collected through the service - including whether it will be sold or used for ads - as well as its broader privacy policies around health data. They said their privacy concerns are particularly pressing given Google's ambitions around health data, which includes partnership with Ascension Health, a network of hospitals and doctors offices that will allow the tech giant to process millions of patients' health records.

"If Google and its subsidiaries fail to establish sufficient privacy safeguards, Americans who use the site will be more susceptible to identity theft, negative credit decisions, and employment discrimination," the lawmakers wrote.

Published : March 19, 2020