This pandemic could give Congress the push it needs to finally pass a privacy law. It’s just not the comprehensive one legislators have been promising.
Technology companies possess a trove of information about Americans’ day-to-day lives that can help public health officials conduct mass contact tracing, track symptoms to see hot spots, measure compliance with social distancing directives and more. Just as the coronavirus crisis has revealed how useful this knowledge can be, it has also revealed how sensitive this knowledge always has been — and how essential it is to ensure the outbreak doesn’t become an excuse for exploitation. Encouragingly, lawmakers in both chambers appear to recognize this risk, along with the need to boost civilians’ trust so that they’ll actually adopt essential new services.
Both parties have put forward proposals in the Senate Commerce Committee regulating data related to the covid-19 emergency, and Democrats have produced a matching bill in the House. The good news is agreement on several high-level issues: requiring express affirmative consent for collection, forbidding reuse of data for another purpose and mandating that information be deleted or delinked from individuals when the pandemic ends. The bad news is that two of the differences between the bills look awfully familiar — because they’re the same fights that have stalled Congress’s efforts to forge a federal framework for privacy for more than a year. Democrats want to enable citizens to sue directly for violations; Republicans do not. Republicans want to override existing state statutes; Democrats do not.
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