Maintaining Privacy While Staying Connected

As the coronavirus races across the country, privacy has taken on a new urgency. Americans are hunkering down and avoiding personal contact with one another — and online, far more people than ever are teleworking, taking classes, shopping, discovering apps like Zoom to chat with friends and family and using telehealth to talk to doctors. Maintaining safe and secure lines of communications at home and online during this period of time is critical.

Increased online activity creates new concerns about consumer data privacy, mobile device surveillance and location information stored within the apps on our mobile devices. It raises questions about where the lines cross between personal privacy and the health and well-being of the population.

For example, in Israel, the government is using cellphone location data to alert its citizenry that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and ordering them to self-quarantine. And China implemented its government surveillance program to restrict citizen movements if they were exposed to the virus and has developed a QRL code application that alerts someone if they have been exposed to or potentially contracted the virus.

Here in the United States, third-party application developers like Unacast are using location data that would normally provide its clients with location, mapping and strategic intelligence into “real-world human activity” to map the spread of the disease as well as provide a scorecard on which states are doing the best job at social distancing.

The Centers for Disease Control has announced it will use some of the $500 million it will get in the $2 trillion stimulus package to modernize analytics and surveillance to establish a system of data collection to track and monitor the spread of the disease, which appears to be similar to what is being done in other countries. There are certainly questions about how this could be compliant with U.S. health care privacy laws. There are also questions about whether Americans will allow their personal information to be disclosed to the government in the battle against the disease, and what will happen when the crisis is over.

Indeed, the discussion over consumer data privacy has been ongoing for quite some time and has become more important following the passage of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the enactment of the California Consumer Privacy Act. Other states have been working on various legislative initiatives that either mimic the GDPR or the CCPA or have non-legislative criteria for protecting consumer data. However, this approach to consumer data privacy is incredibly burdensome for businesses since the rules differ from state to state. A standard nationwide privacy framework that supersedes the various state laws and initiatives to provide consumers and businesses alike with certainty as to how this information should be protected is needed.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been working on a national privacy framework during the entire 116th Congress, but nothing has been done beyond some hearings. The latest bill, the Consumer Data Privacy and Security Act of 2020, was introduced on March 12, 2020, by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and is intended to provide the country with the stability needed to ensure a unified data privacy regime. This legislation would establish a clear federal standard for consumer data privacy, give consumers control over their own data, require businesses collecting significant amounts of personal data to take extra steps to protect and process the data, prohibit companies from collecting data without a consumer’s consent, require businesses to adopt robust data security programs and give robust enforcement authority of federal consumer privacy protections to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, as well as providing the FTC with the necessary resources.

Once members of Congress complete their work on necessary emergency legislation to combat the coronavirus, which should address the parameters of the CDC’s surveillance system, they must then turn their attention to consumer data privacy as more Americans than ever stay home and conduct an increasing amount of their daily activities online.

Deborah Collier is the vice president of policy and government affairs for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult