In a letter to Federal CTO Michael Kratsios, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., questioned the Federal government’s plan to use American’s smartphone location data to fight COVID-19.

In the letter, dated March 19, Markey said that while he agrees the government must use available technology and collaboration with the private sector to combat the virus, “we cannot embrace action that represents a wholesale privacy invasion, particularly when it involves highly sensitive and personal location information.” He further urged the Executive Branch to “balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis.”

Markey, who is the ranking member for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, cited reports from the Washington Post that Federal government officials “are engaging with technology companies to consider using location data collected from Americans’ smartphones to track the coronavirus.” The reports said that Kratsios convened meetings with leaders from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and others to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

The senator acknowledged that the reports indicate that the Trump administration isn’t “’seeking to collect and maintain a database of Americans’ whereabouts’ but is instead ‘looking to leverage aggregated, anonymized data to glean key insights for COVID-19 modeling efforts.’” However, he argued that this attempt to limit smartphone location data is “insufficient to preclude violations of Americans’ privacy,” as even anonymized data could reveal sensitive details, including place of employment, religious affiliation, or political preferences.

In his letter, Markey requests Kratsios provide answers to several questions by March 26.

Markey asks Kratsios to:

  • “Please identify any companies with which the Administration is collaborating to use location data for fighting COVID-19 and describe the nature of these collaborations in detail.
  • Please describe the location data to be used in any projects that the Administration is considering, including the granularity of data, how it was initially collected, how it is being anonymized and aggregated, and how the Administration is ensuring that it cannot later be de-anonymized.
  • Please detail the evidence-based rationale for these collaborations and the specific objectives they aim to achieve.
  • How will any data be collected and stored, and what data security safeguards will be in place to protect this data from malicious attacks or inappropriate access?
  • Who will have access to location data collected for fighting COVID-19? Will you restrict use of this data solely to purposes of fighting COVID-19? If not, why not?
  • Will you ensure that the government stops collecting location data and disposes of any collected data once the COVID-19 health crisis has been resolved? If so, please describe your plans for this data disposal in detail. If not, why not?”
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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.