Alphabet's COVID-19 screening site might serve as a relief to those eager to determine if they need to get tested, but it's also raising some privacy concerns in Congress. Five Democratic senators have sent letters to Vice President Mike Pence and Alphabet chief Sundar Pichai asking if they've studied the potential for privacy and security holes in Verily's Baseline triage system. The politicians wanted to know if users will be asked to "forfeit" their data to participate, and if Google will be barred from either using the data for its own purposes or selling it to third parties.
The senators are concerned that any shortfalls in protection could leave people vulnerable to "identity theft, negative credit decisions, and employment discrimination," pointing to data breaches at companies like Equifax as an example of what can go wrong. They also asked who exactly was in charge, with "specific concerns" about Google given its extensive access to health data through Project Nightingale.
Pence and Pichai have until March 30th to answer the letters. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is effectively the lead for the request, but was joined by senators Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown and Kamala Harris.
The White House hasn't commented on the matter. A Verily spokesperson stressed that Google was "not collecting or retaining" user data. Verily was only using Google platforms to "safely store and protect" Baseline's health data, the representative said. Any collected info was "stored separately" and wouldn't be tied to any Google products, including ads.
This won't necessarily address every concern about the COVID-19 site, and there's no guarantee politicians will take concrete action if the answers aren't satisfactory. It might, however, remind Verliy and Alphabet that politicians still expect data protections even in the midst of a global health crisis.