U.S. Senator demands Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai be personally accountable for coronavirus contact tracing privacy

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) is calling for Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google-parent Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai to be held personally accountable for any potential privacy lapses or misuses of Apple’s and Google’s joint COVID-19 contact tracing technology.

Here’s an illustration of how the Apple – Google coronavirus contact tracing is proposed to work:
contact tracing privacy. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool
Apple Google COVID. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool

Senator Hawley’s letter:

Dear Mr. Pichai and Mr. Cook:

Your recently announced project to respond to COVID–19 by tracking when and where Americans interact with each other raises serious concerns. Especially because of Google’s poor record on privacy, I fear that your project could pave the way for something much more dire.

The possible implications this project could have for privacy are alarming. For example, your materials state that the data necessary for this project will be anonymized. But anonymity in data is notoriously unstable. Data typically can be reidentified simply by cross-referencing it with another data set. Pairing the data from this project with the GPS data that both your companies already collect could readily reveal individual identities.

Worse, when paired with other data sets, the data from this project could create an extraordinarily precise mechanism for surveillance. Both your companies collect GPS data, but the GPS system has significant limits. It works poorly indoors and cannot pinpoint the floor a person is on. Combining the data from this project with GPS data (or other data, such as Wi-Fi positioning), could greatly erode privacy by making precise surveillance much easier.

Americans are right to be skeptical of this project. Even if this project were to prove helpful for the current crisis, how can Americans be sure that you will not change the interface after the pandemic subsides? Once downloaded onto millions of phones, the interface easily could be edited to eliminate previous privacy protections. And any privacy protection that is baked into the interface will do little good if the apps that are developed to access the interface also choose to collect other information, like real-time geolocation data. When it comes to sticking to promises, Google’s record is not exactly reassuring. Last year a Google representative had to admit, under oath, that Google still tracks location history even when a person turns location history off. As the Associated Press put it, “Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.”

A project this unprecedented requires an unprecedented assurance on your part. Too often, Americans have been burned by companies who calculated that the profits they could gain by reversing privacy pledges would outweigh any later financial penalty levied against the company. The last thing Americans want is to adopt, amid a global emergency, a tracking program that then becomes a permanent feature in our lives.

If you seek to assure the public, make your stake in this project personal. Make a commitment that you and other executives will be personally liable if you stop protecting privacy, such as by granting advertising companies access to the interface once the pandemic is over. The public statements you make now can be enforced under federal and state consumer protection laws. Do not hide behind a corporate shield like so many privacy offenders have before. Stake your personal finances on the security of this project.
I look forward to hearing about how you intend to try to provide Americans with assurance.

Sincerely,

Josh Hawley
United States Senator

MacDailyNews Take: Regardless of the efficacy issues with contact tracing*, this should put another nail in its PR coffin as we doubt Cook or, especially, Pichai (suffice to say that Google is not held is high regard for protecting user privacy) would stake their personal reputations and finances on this quixotic, feel-good effort at producing pablum for the masses.

No location data is truly anonymized. It can be cross-matched with other publicly-available data to identify and track individuals. The idea of any government requiring cellphone tracking to monitor its citizens’ movements, regardless of the reason, is chilling. — MacDailyNews, April 2, 2020

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin

Lastly, Apple should be careful here. Google has an awful reputation regarding user privacy. Apple must be wary of tarnishing (or destroying) the reputation for user privacy that they’ve carefully built over many years with a system that not only involves Google, of all companies, but that also has a slew of obvious privacy issues.MacDailyNews, April 13, 2020

*Beyond risks with contact tracing privacy, no matter how well-designed the Apple-Google system is on paper, in practice too few people will install and use it, while reliance on Bluetooth connectivity (range, materials penetrance, public transport, etc.) will result in myriad false positive issues. This seems like something designed to provide a digital security blanket to help increase confidence for going back to work more than anything else. More about the myriad issues of Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing apps can be found in our Takes here and here.

56 Comments

  1. From the very beginning, the United States botched the response to the pandemic with poor preparation, disinformation and propaganda from the federal level and a hubris that American exceptionalism will win the day.

    In contrast, South Korea went to work from the get go and implemented a mass testing and contact tracing initiative to isolate individuals exposed to COVID-19. The result of this policy is a reopening of society months ahead of the United States.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-18/seoul-s-full-cafes-apple-store-lines-show-mass-testing-success

    Contract tracing, along with mass testing, are the tools to protect the masses and reopen society with confidence. We should support Apple and Google to develop a contact tracing solution with federal oversight (if it hasn’t been defunded by fake president) to protect the citizenry and restart the economy.

    The facts are conclusive.

    South Korea

    Coronavirus Cases:10,694
    Deaths: 238

    United States:

    Coronavirus Cases: 819,321
    Deaths: 45,355

    1. The U.S. is not South Korea.

      I understand that you really, really want it to work to protect everyone and we can just go back to “normal.” In actual reality, it will not work and an effective vaccine is the only way to go back to “normal.”

      Any clear-thinking person knows that contact tracing won’t work in the U.S. for many reasons, as MacDailyNews has explained well already:

      ACLU has concerns with Apple-Google’s COVID-19 contact-tracing plan

      UK’s NHS in standoff with Apple and Google over coronavirus tracing

      1. “The U.S. is not South Korea.”

        Couldn’t agree more. South Korea is so much better than the United States in its handling of the pandemic. It’s not even close. It’s a Mike Tyson first round knockout through the ropes. We continue to kick ourselves in the nuts arguing about policy and outright lies while other countries take action:

        “I understand that you really, really want it to work to protect everyone and we can just go back to “normal.”

        I didn’t say things would be back to normal and if you had read the article, things aren’t back to normal in SK. However, they are much closer to normal than we are. Why are you so willing to accept the current situation as it is?

        “Any clear-thinking person knows that contact tracing won’t work in the U.S. for many reasons”

        So you are accepting the limitations of our society while thousands die and our health care system is brought to our knees, even though there are proven ways to manage the pandemic more effectively. Then you must willing to admit that our alleged status as “The Greatest Country in the World” is a fallacy; a myth perpetuated by the those blinded by the cult of America.

        1. Please, move to South Korea and cower under the thumb of Samsung (which owns the country) while fearing nukes from the crazy northern other half of your former country.

          In the United States of America we have, thankfully, something called the U.S. Constitution.

          1. Oh right, the US Constitution. The document that allowed slavery and said women were second class citizens.

            How hard will you be clutching your copy as you enter your 5th or 6th month of isolation?

        2. The ‘limitations’ are called the US constitution. Health care system was in shambles before the virus. What makes you think it would get any better? So if there is no vaccine or cure, then what? Depression? Suicides, riots, murders? The US needs to follow Sweden’s experiment which seems to be working without wrecking their economy. The US experiment is a dismal failure and is definitely worse than the so called cure which may never come to fruition. Wake up.

          1. There are a couple of reasons not to follow the Swedish experiment.

            First, the Swedes have encouraged social distancing and have voluntary compliance that is clearly better than the compliance with mandatory distancing in many US localities. Their culture promotes social responsibility, not rugged individualism.

            People can afford to comply because they have generous leave policies that discourage coming to work sick. They have generous pensions and other benefits that allow people to stay home if they are susceptible. Universal medical care leaves fewer patients with untreated underlying conditions, and encourages early medical intervention by a primary care physician rather than an emergency department. Demographically, Swedes are more likely to live alone than Americans and far less likely to have crowded living conditions.

            Secondly, and despite all those advantages, Sweden still has more cases and deaths than the adjacent countries with mandatory distancing.

    2. But how many of those deaths were ‘strictly’ caused by the virus? If the apparent rate of infection is much larger than first thought…the mortality rate is a fraction of that percentage. At this point, it seems most people either don’t suffer symptoms at all, or those that do…simply make a full recovery.

      Let’s not be reactionary chicken little’s here, is all I’m saying.

      1. What the hell does it matter as to whether COVID-19 (caused by SARS-Cov-2) is “strictly” the cause or not?

        Think about this…
        Your grandfather died of a heart attack.
        Your father died of a heart attack.
        Your CRP rating is really high.
        I shoot you in the abdomen multiple times with a large caliber handgun.
        You have a massive ing the root cause of your death is not me — well before you
        You die. bleed to death.hooting you?

        (If that were true, I’d never be convicted of murdering you!)

        Also…
        Back in the 80s and early 900s people that had contracted HIV and got AIDS were dying.
        Most of those were dying of things 99.99% of us never get.
        Those individuals died of things due to a radically reduced immune system.
        Are you saying the root cause of their deaths was not HIV and AIDS?

    3. @Jrock: Using a 1 to 1 case study doesn’t have the statistical force to finish with, “conclusive”.

      The only shared characteristics of the “subjects” is the virus itself.

      The infection in SK gained strength in a very specific population, that was youthful and limited in geography. The limited scope enabled zeroing in more directly on the infection and the youthfulness is statistical benefit overall.

      1. At one point in the United States, the infected was limited in scope, just like South Korea.

        Unlike South Korea, the United States chose to ignore scientists and health officials and allowed a limited infection to grow rapidly.

  2. If not this app, when what do you propose in its place? Contact tracing is one vital tool in controlling the spread of the virus and keeping deaths to a minimum. If you keep saying “no” without proposing effective alternative strategies, you’re basically saying you are willing to accept the consequences of doing nothing, no matter how horrific they might be.

    1. Actually, not having an effective replacement for an obviously flawed system is not “basically saying you are willing to accept the consequences of doing nothing, no matter how horrific they might be,” drama queen.

      I can tell you that a concrete sarcophagus over Chernobyl and a 1,000 sq. mile exclusion zone is a suboptimal response to a disaster. Not having a proposal to put in place of that strategy does not make me “willing to accept the consequences of doing nothing, no matter how horrific they might be.”

      1. “Actually, not having an effective replacement for an obviously flawed system is not “basically saying you are willing to accept the consequences of doing nothing, no matter how horrific they might be,” drama queen.”

        Let me repost these damn pesky facts:

        South Korea

        Coronavirus Cases:10,694
        Deaths: 238

        United States:

        Coronavirus Cases: 819,321
        Deaths: 45,355

        Please explain how the US management of the pandemic is so much better than SK and how contact tracing would not benefit the population of the US.

        1. Again, please, move to South Korea and cower under the thumb of Samsung (which owns the country) while fearing nukes from the crazy northern other half of your former country.

          In the United States of America we have, thankfully, something called the U.S. Constitution.

          1. Facts are a repellent to weak arguments. So I will repost them.

            South Korea

            Coronavirus Cases:10,694
            Deaths: 238

            United States:

            Coronavirus Cases: 819,321
            Deaths: 45,355

        2. Not defending the US’s incompetence, but I am a little more forgiving.

          Some more data:

          TESTS/1M population:
          SK: 11,273
          USA: 12,815

          Okay, to be fair, SKorea, did alot of testing early, while the US has been playing catch-up, and done alot of testing late, so now the US has tested more per capita than SKorea.

          Personally, I think it’s not fair to compare countries outside of a region. Asian countries were far better prepared because they are closer to the source, and had prior recent experience. That’s why the whole region has done fairly well against Covid-19. Skorea did well, but so did alot of other asian countries do equally well or even better.

          Contextually, the US is far more like Western Europe. And when you compare the US and Western European countries: Belgium, Andorra, Spain, Italy, France, UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland all have higher death rates per capita than the US. Are they also incompetent? Is there system also flawed? Sweden is held up as a paragon of social benefits and they haven’t shutdown their country at all.

          The analysis of what countries did right and what they did wrong will take months, if not years to analyze. Just remember correlation is not causation. Just because some countries did well, doesn’t mean their approach was the best. We still don’t know.

          I’ve seen reports praising Iceland’s high-test rate, leading to their successful control of Covid-19, and yet, their death rate per capita is not all that remarkable at 29/million. Lots of countries have done better with less testing. Poland has tested 20x less than Iceland, and their death rate is 1/3rd of Iceland’s. What does it mean? I dunno, but it seems to me there will be loads of data for researchers to study before we can call things “facts” or not facts.

  3. You try to do something nice to help and you get this stuff. Josh Hawley, I would be much more worried about a whole lot of other stuff than this right now. What are your alternatives? Do nothing? We need answers not fault finding. Take a look at the death count and cases. Once again I ask, What are your alternatives?

    1. Human history is rife with examples of good intentions leading to bad results.

      “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

      1. Human history is also rife with examples of mass suffering due to a lack of leadership.

        And of course, that Franklin quote is taken completely out of context. That quote came in the context of a tax dispute and the word “purchase” here referred to defense spending. But you know, American love quoting dead white guys from the 1700’s.

        Let’s let thousands more die because of one sentence Ben Franklin wrote in the 1700’s – got it.

        1. The reason quotes from “dead white guys from the 1700’s” are referenced is because they are proven to hold intrinsic truths.

          It doesn’t matter who or when it was said, it’s an essential truth (at least to students of human history vs. morons who hate America):

          “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

          Dead black guy from the 1900’s:

          “Better to die fighting for freedom than be a prisoner all the days of your life.” ― Bob Marley

        2. Hey Hypocrite:
          See your earlier statement:

          Oh right, the US Constitution. The document that allowed slavery and said women were second class citizens.

          Now who is taking shit out of context? You, loser.

          1. I have no idea where you could have gotten such information, but the US Constitution does not, nor did it ever, allow slavery or said women were second class citizens.

            Quite the contrary, in fact.

            I suggest you read it (it’s not a long read) and quote the passages that say the things you claim.

            1. The Constitution avoided the word “slave” because the Southern delegates preferred “servants”and the Northern delegates did not want to explicitly approve it. Nevertheless, there are at least two provisions relating to slavery.

              Article I, Section 3: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” There were no other persons besides slaves.

              Article I, Section 9 : “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” This, as it was intended, delayed the prohibition of the slave trade for twenty years.

              In addition, the Fifth Amendment prohibition on Congress depriving anyone of property without just compensation was, in part, a “poison pill” to make abolition too expensive to implement (except in wartime, as it happened).

            2. TxUser – ok I will grant you that the Constitution never explicitly says women couldn’t vote. However, it gave no protections to women and hence why I am making this claim. White men wrote the Constitution for white men.

              I am from Rochester, NY originally, and am very familiar with women’s suffrage movement and how women had to literally fight tooth and nail to earn the right to vote. If you’re ever in the area, I highly suggest visiting the Susan B. Anthony house.

          2. If the Constitution didn’t allow and include slavery (which it did), why did it take the 13th amendment to ban slavery?

            If the Constitution didn’t treat women as second class citizens (which it did), why did it take the 19th amendment to allow the women the right to vote?

            Jesus, get your head out of your red, white and blue asshole.

  4. Sounds good to me! The vast majority of us have no use for the app, anyway. This isn’t the black death, people, and I say that as someone in a state that still has a few cases of the plague every year. You aren’t going to die or even suffer much barring mitigating circumstances. I’ve never seen a mass hallucination of this magnitude in my life, and again, I live in a state that still has the ACTUAL plague here and there. Hantavirus, too.

    1. The reason that the endemic bubonic plague and hantavirus in the Southwest are relatively manageable threats is almost entirely due to vigorous public health measures. Chief among these are reporting requirements, quarantines, testing, and contact tracing. Without precisely the methods proposed for controlling coronavirus, Albuquerque could see disease rates approaching Europe in 1348. Obviously, we have better rodent control and lower population densities, but the key is applying sound public health practices: identification and isolation.

      “The vast majority of us have no use for the app” is only true if you have no use for the human beings who might die because you formed a link in the chain leading from Wuhan to them. Even if you are confident that you would survive, they might not. Without regular universal testing, contact tracing is the only way to break the chain.

  5. The idea was dystopian and repulsive before I knew the details, after reading that graphic I see that it’s unadulterated evil. You might as well allow yourself to be branded, microchipped, ear tagged, and forcibly injected, because this is just the grooming stage. Since leftists fail to reproduce as much as normal people, I think they should get all of the vaccines in triple doses, they really need to be kept “safe”.

  6. Having either CEO held personally responsible for a privacy leak opens up huge complications for future judgements…if it’s a “company-made” decision.

    With that said, I am weary of the ongoing safety CEO’s, political leaders and others “favored,” that fail legally, or with other “commitments,” and experience absolutely no consequences.

    The consequences need to have a real bite and not be just a bruise.

    I loved reading Howley’s “…Especially because of Google’s poor record on privacy, I fear that your project….”. This is a pretty powerful bruise, but it’s not enough. Google has moved on “just fine” with past bruises of this kind. It needs to have real teeth and maybe leave a scar.

        • Hogan didn’t have to do that.
        • He did it for political reasons.
        • He wasted Maryland citizens’ tax dollars to score a political point.
        • If Maryland voters had any clue whatsoever, they’d vote him out next time around.
        1. And your evidence for any of this? Hogan isn’t the only Republican governor who can’t get testing on the scale the Federal government has told us is required. Daily testing nationally has been essentially static for two weeks, at about a third the minimum level required. The only way to”open America” is for shoppers to feel safe, and that isn’t happening until testing is widespread.

        2. How so? Fake president said the states were on their own and Hogan acted accordingly.

          “If there were an easier way, we certainly would have taken it,” Hogan said Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The president said the governors are on their own and they should focus on getting their own tests, and that’s exactly what we did.”

          In my opinion, Hogan is working for the people of Maryland, unlike other fake leaders.

        3. Seriously? Those are your weak excuse for a state that took care of its citizens? You are so fixated on trumps sphincter that every thing you say is to support the lying sack occupying the white house. And yes, I know this is a state but it’s trumps incompetence that forced them to take that action.

          Get a life. I’m glad you’ll go away once the election is over. Oh wait, when Biden is elected with the popular and Electoral College vote, your assignment will be to spread hate.

          Get a life.

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