Opinion

Coronavirus and Privacy Protection

Public health experts tell us we need to embrace new technologies to end the coronavirus pandemic, save lives and restart our economy. In order to fuel these breakthrough innovations, people need to trust these tools do not violate their privacy. To build and keep consumer trust, it’s time we take action on a national data privacy standard.

Mapping anonymized data from smartphones, Google and Apple’s Bluetooth contact tracing and other emerging applications can help equip us to track COVID-19 cases and stop outbreaks. For this type of technology to work, widespread adoption is required. Without people’s trust that their data in these tools is protected from misuse by government or businesses, it will be difficult to generate the mass utilization needed to end the greatest health care crisis we’ve seen in a century and rebuild a booming economy.

Polling shows the majority of Americans favor aggressive measures to curb the coronavirus spread, like sharing location information to identify high risk areas. At the height of this crisis, people are searching for new tools that will save lives, get people back to work and reopen Main Street. Whether it’s trust or fear driving people’s willingness to share an unprecedented amount of data, imagine the devastating consequences if the coronavirus response leads to another Cambridge Analytica or Equifax surprise because action wasn’t taken to safeguard consumer privacy. The magnitude of adoption and innovation needed will come to a screeching halt if privacy abuses over data collection and usage create a catastrophic breakdown in consumer trust. 

To prevent a worst-case scenario, there should be a workable national standard for data privacy that sets clear rules for transparency on how data is used, stored and shared. When 73 percent of Americans say they don’t trust protections that change with a patchwork of state laws, a national standard is the best way to advance a pro-consumer and pro-innovation strategy.

As the global economy is disrupted, who would you rather trust to lead on this? The Chinese Communist Party is using this crisis to expand unlimited government surveillance and control of its own citizens. It’s also exporting their state-developed technologies to other authoritarian regimes. In Europe, their overreaching and strict regulations are hindering progress and endangering public safety. It’s also stopped grocers from making timely food deliveries to 1.5 million vulnerable people in self-isolation from the coronavirus. 

Unlike China and Europe, America is uniquely qualified to lead on forward-thinking solutions that promote both consumer protection and innovation. If we get data privacy right, America can lead the world into a new era of emerging technology that upholds our values for human rights, individual liberty, the free market and limited government. This new era starts with how we meet this moment and kickstart the breakthroughs necessary to end the pandemic and save lives. 

As American ingenuity powers our economy to reopen, a national standard for data privacy is needed more urgently than ever. It ensures we will make an even stronger comeback and build trust in the private sector to keep innovating for decades to come, especially with data-driven advancements made possible by artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum computing. Most importantly, when the next global emergency strikes, a national standard will make sure people trust the technology that keeps them safe and prevents the economy from being shut down in the first place. That’s how America wins the future.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents Washington’s 5th Congressional District and is the Republican leader on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over data privacy and other technology issues, along with consumer protection.  

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