Members of Congress Question COVID-19 Screening Site’s Privacy Protections

Five Senate Democrats are questioning the data collection practices of Google’s subsidiary Verily, which announced a new coronavirus screening service on Monday. The service was designed to streamline viral testing for people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Verily is a health research subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Its screening service allows people in the Bay area “to input their symptoms, and if they show signs of coronavirus, obtain testing.” Several congressional Democrats, including Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, have qualms with the service’s data collection policies, especially regarding personally identifiable information. The Senators felt that Google’s use of personal data was unclear and whether the “information the company obtains, or possibly harnesses from users’ browsing habits, might be used for a range of purposes that people might not expect.”

In a March 18 blog post, Verily said that data is not shared with Google. “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,” said Verily. However, for patients to use the service they must first log into their Google accounts before answering personal health questions.

The Senators were especially concerned about whether the data collected through Google’s service would be used for ads, or sold. “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,” wrote the Senators. Their concerns over personal privacy are especially urgent because of Google’s “partnership with Ascension Health, a network of hospitals and doctors offices that will allow the tech giant to process millions of patients’ health records.”