Senator wants Cook personally responsibility for contact-tracing privacy

Senator wants Tim Cook to take personal responsibility for contact-tracing data privacy

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bluetooth-tracing
Senator Hawley is concerned about Apple and Google's privacy for contact-tracing data.
Photo: Apple/Google

Sen. Josh Hawley wants Apple and Google to have some skin in the game when it comes to keeping data private in their joint coronavirus contact-tracing project. Hawley’s idea? That the Apple and Google CEOs — Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, respectively — should take personal responsibility for ensuring the data is kept private.

“If you seek to assure the public, make your stake in this project personal,” the Republican senator from Missouri wrote Tuesday in a letter to Cook and Pichai. “Make a commitment that you and other executives will be personally liable if you stop protecting privacy, such as by granting advertising companies access to the interface once the pandemic is over.”

Google and Apple announced their voluntary contact-tracing solution to stop the spread of COVID-19 earlier this month. The system would use smartphones’ Bluetooth “chirps” to tell where an infected person has been and who they’ve come in contact with.

Senator is concerned about contact-tracing privacy

Google and Apple stressed the importance of protecting user data. Their contact-tracing tool does not collect personally identifiable information or location data. Those who test positive would not be identified to other users or to Apple or Google. Information will also be anonymized, thanks to an anonymous key that changes every 15 minutes.

Nonetheless, Hawley has some issues with the potential privacy measures implemented. In his letter, he notes that, “anonymity in data is notoriously unstable. Data typically can be reidentified simply by cross-referencing it with another data set.”

He wants Cook and Pichai to stake their personal reputation (whatever that would mean in practical terms) on the project. He writes that they should “not hide behind a corporate shield like so many privacy offenders have before. Stake your personal finances on the security of this project.”

These concerns echo similar ones put forward by President Donald Trump. During a White House briefing last week, Trump called Google and Apple’s contact-tracing tool “amazing” in concept. But he noted that some people “have some very big constitutional problems” with it.

One of Hawley’s concerns is that the program will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic fades. Apple and Google said they will terminate the contact-tracing program once the coronavirus is defeated. However, it may be tough to determine exactly when that is.

Apple and Google referred The Hill, which shared news of Hawley’s letter, to their previous privacy-protection statements. You can read Hawley’s letter in full here (.pdf).

Josh Hawley on tech issues

This is not the first time Hawley has spoken out about tech issues. Last year, he put forward the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART Act). This would “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology … to substantially impede freedom of choice.”

“Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks” that keep users fixated on social media, Hawley said.