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Democrats introduce measure to boost privacy, security of health data during pandemic

Democrats introduce measure to boost privacy, security of health data during pandemic
© getty: A healthcare worker administers a coronavirus test to a patient in Tampa, Florida

A group of Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate on Thursday introduced legislation intended to increase the privacy and security of personal health data collected in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act would ensure that health data collected during the pandemic could not be used for anything other than public health efforts, along with addressing a slew of potentially discriminatory practices.

These include banning the use of personal health data from contact tracing apps to prohibit voting or to limit housing, education, and employment opportunities. 

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The bill would also require tech groups to delete health data collected after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, for organizations collecting the data to institute strong data security practices, and mandate regular reports on the impact of tools used to collect health data on civil rights.

The legislation was introduced last Congress, but failed to pass either the House or Senate. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who introduced the legislation in the Senate alongside incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNew US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations Democrats brace for new 'defund the police' attacks Intelligence leaders push for mandatory breach notification law MORE (D-Va.), described the bill Thursday as “an investment in our public health.”

“Legal safeguards protecting consumer privacy failed to keep pace with technology, and that lapse is costing us in the fight against COVID-19,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “This measure sets strict and straightforward privacy protections and promises: Your information will be used to stop the spread of this disease, and no more.”

Warner noted in a separate statement that as COVID-19 vaccines are given to more Americans, with more data collected, he had “fear” that without new privacy protections for health data, “creeping privacy violations and discriminatory uses of health data could become the new status quo in health care and public health.”

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 The bill was introduced in the House by more than 20 Democrats led by Reps. Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneNIH reverses Trump administration's ban on fetal tissue research NIH to make announcement on fetal tissue research policy amid Trump-era restrictions To encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision MORE (Wash.), Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooLawmakers launch bipartisan caucus on SALT deduction Biden clean electricity standard faces high hurdles House Democrats introduce carbon pricing measure MORE (Calif.), and Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyNIH reverses Trump administration's ban on fetal tissue research Omar: 'Shameful' Biden reneging on refugee promise Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 MORE (Ill.). The sponsors highlighted the lack of a federal data privacy law in further making the case for passage of the bill. 

“Data privacy should not end with the pandemic,” DelBene said in a statement. “We need comprehensive privacy reform to protect Americans at all times, including state preemption to create a strong, uniform national standard. I hope that this crisis has shed light on the lack of adequate digital privacy policies in our country and look forward to working with these lawmakers and others to create the necessary standards moving forward.” 

The issue of a federal data privacy law has been one that has been a hotly contested topic on Capitol Hill for years, in particular following the passage of California’s landmark privacy law and the implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. 

Democrats and Republicans have butted heads over what to include in any federal bill, with the debate likely to gain renewed focus this year.