Senate Democrats raise alarms over Google’s coronavirus screening site

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the Google I/O keynote session at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California on May 7, 2019.

Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

Five Democratic senators raised alarms about potential privacy and cybersecurity issues related to Google’s efforts to help the White House manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group of senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kamala Harris of California, signed two letters addressed to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Vice President Mike Pence, respectively. 

In the letter to Pichai, the senators said they “appreciate the Administration’s efforts to utilize Google’s technology to disseminate up-to-date information about COVID-19” but feared neither had assessed all the implications of such a system. Google had reportedly been caught off-guard when President Donald Trump announced in a news conference Friday that it was working on a website to help screen Americans for the virus and direct them to the appropriate resources.

The project is being run by Verily, the life sciences company under Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It launched a pilot of the website on Sunday in the San Francisco Bay Area. The site requires users to have a Google account and agree for some information to potentially be shared with the company in order to access the questionnaire that helps determine users’ eligibility for the COVID-19 test.

The unclear roll-out of the website, which seemed more limited in scope and in an early stage than what the president originally outlined, raised questions “about who will be responsible for the website and when it will be launched,” the senators said. If Google is responsible, they added, “we have specific concerns in light of the company’s ‘Project Nightingale’ initiative with Ascension Health which grants it access to millions of American’s personal health data,” referring to a partnership with the U.S. hospital network revealed late last year.

“There are numerous privacy concerns about such an endeavor, including: whether people will be required to sign waivers forfeiting their privacy and personal data in order to access the questionnaire; whether Google or any of its subsidiaries will be prohibited from using data received through the website for commercial purposes; and whether Google and any of its subsidiaries will be prohibited from selling any data collected through the website to a third-party,” the senators wrote to Pichai. “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.”

The senators asked Google and Pence to respond to a list of questions about their work by March 30. The questions seek to nail down a time-frame for a national launch of the website and better understand the nature of any formal agreements between the White House and Google on the matter. They also seek to understand if the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will be involved in securing the site and whether it will be compliant with laws safeguarding patient data.

“Google is not collecting or retaining user information,” a spokesperson for Verily said in a statement. “Verily is collecting the information needed to fulfill the purposes of the Baseline COVID-19 testing program, and uses Google infrastructure to safely store and protect health information. All the data provided by Baseline users for screening is stored separately and not linked to any of Google’s products and services. Data will not be used for advertising purposes.”

Google’s large data stores have become a source of scrutiny in Washington as antitrust authorities assess whether it has leveraged a dominant position in markets like online advertising or search to gain an anticompetitive advantage. As that investigation is ongoing, officials are also assessing whether Google should be able to buy smartwatch-maker Fitbit, granting it more health data that Google has said it would not monetize for ads.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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