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Despite assurances, a Senator wants Apple and Google's CEOs to be 'personally liable' for contact tracing privacy

Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology
Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology (Image credit: Apple)

What you need to know

  • Senator Josh Hawley has written to Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook.
  • He says that he has serious concerns about Apple and Google's COVID-19 contact tracing program.
  • He wants both CEOs to be personally liable for the privacy of its users.

Senator Josh Hawley has written to the CEOs of both Apple and Google, demanding that they should be 'personally liable' if their respective companies stop protecting user privacy within its COVID-19 contact tracing technology.

In the letter, dated April 21, 2020 he writes:

Your recently announced project to respond to COVID–19 by tracking when and where Americans interact with each other raises serious concerns. Especially because of Google's poor record on privacy, I fear that your project could pave the way for something much more dire. The possible implications this project could have for privacy are alarming. For example, your materials state that the data necessary for this project will be anonymized. But anonymity in data is notoriously unstable. Data typically can be reidentified simply by cross-referencing it with another data set. Pairing the data from this project with the GPS data that both your companies already collect could readily reveal individual identities.

Senator Hawley is a real stickler for big tech companies, and has taken great joy in previously bashing TikTok, Apple, and Apple some more in recent months.

Hawley's concerns raised seem to revolve around the prospect of Apple and Google pairing the data from the project with GPS data "that both your companies already collect," which he says could reveal identities. He further notes:

Even if this project were to prove helpful for the current crisis, how can Americans be sure that you will not change the interface after the pandemic subsides? Once downloaded onto millions of phones, the interface easily could be edited to eliminate previous privacy protections. And any privacy protection that is baked into the interface will do little good if the apps that are developed to access the interface also choose to collect other information, like real-time geolocation data.

Hawley cited Google's privacy track record as "not exactly reassuring", and said that an unprecedented project requires "unprecedented assurance on your part". As such, he wants Cook and Pichai to commit to being "personally liable if you stop protecting privacy."

This is of course, absurd, as no CEO would/could ever be held personally liable for the actions/failings of a company. Furthermore, the joint statement and technical documents released by Apple and Google have already given these assurances. They list the following privacy safe measures:

  • Explicit user consent required
  • Doesn't collect personally identifiable information or user location data
  • List of people you've been in contact with never leaves your phone
  • People who test positive are not identified to other users, Google or Apple
  • Will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management
  • Doesn't matter if you have an Android phone or an iPhone - works across both

Senator Hawley is just another man, yelling at another cloud.

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9 Comments
  • A CEO should not be held liable for the actions or failings of a company? Weird, I almost thought it would be their job to control the actions of companies and their failings. I must be insane. If they start doing anything illegal someone should be held liable. And no, no one should just take their word for it. This is a ridiculous article.
  • They should be held liable.
  • Just astonished that the person who wrote this article is incinuating that we should just trust the giant companies.
  • The Senator is Republican therefore he must be evil! The Senator is 100% correct this this article is a joke!
  • The senator either can't read or doesn't understand how it's impossible to tie the data from this API to any phone or person. He ends his letter by stating how anxious he is to hear these things that have been explained over and over. Idiot. A third (and more likely) option is that he never even read the API documentation or any of the hundreds of internet articles explaining it.
  • That doesn't mean it can't be changed.
  • Then any existing apps written using the current method would stop working. So it does mean it can't be changed.
  • I went to high school with Hawley. He was a joke then, that no one liked and nothing has changed.
  • Are you saying that we should just trust the companies and their CEOs? Just because you didn't like him doesn't mean he can't be right.