Democrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation

Democrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation
© Greg Nash

Democrats in both chambers introduced legislation Thursday aimed at protecting the privacy and security of health data during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act would place strict limits on what and by whom data collected for public health purposes can be used, implement data minimization procedures for that info, and require opt-in consent for any efforts.

The legislation comes as health agencies and tech companies are developing contact tracing and monitoring tools to contain the pandemic.


It would bar conditioning the right to vote based on use of such services or a medical condition.

The bill would also formally mandate data collected to fight the pandemic be deleted after the public health emergency.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Social media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots MORE (D-Va.) introduced the legislation in the Senate.

“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, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"Americans are rightly skeptical that their sensitive health data will be kept safe and secure, and as a result, they’re reluctant to participate in contact tracing programs essential to halt the spread of this disease," he added.

Reps. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley: Intelligence agency gathers US smartphone location data without warrants, memo says | Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian hack on DOJ, courts | Airbnb offers Biden administration help with vaccine distribution Democrats urge tech giants to change algorithms that facilitate spread of extremist content Bottom line MORE (D-Calif), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyFreshman GOP lawmaker apologizes for Hitler quote Newly sworn-in Republican lawmaker condemned by Holocaust Museum after Hitler quote 150 House Democrats support Biden push to reenter Iran nuclear deal MORE (D-Ill.) and Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneWashington state neighbors underscore internal Democratic tensions Lawmakers, officials stress need to expand broadband access The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Moderna vaccine nears US approval; Congress cites 'progress' toward relief bill MORE (D-Wash.) introduced the House version.


"As we consider new technologies that collect vast amounts of sensitive personal data, we must not lose site of the civil liberties that define who we are as a nation," Eshoo, who represents a portion of Silicon Valley, said in a statement.

Reps. Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeLawmakers call for small business aid at all levels of government The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Top tech executives testify in blockbuster antitrust hearing MORE (D-N.Y.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldBickering Democrats return with divisions Congress must protect kidney disease patients during the COVID-19 pandemic The time for HELP is now: Senate should pass bill to expedite recovery following natural disasters MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) are also co-sponsors.

The legislation from Democrats comes two weeks after Senate Republicans introduced another bill focused on data privacy in the context of the pandemic. It did not receive any Democratic support.

That bill would also create an opt-in requirement, but is more limited to data collected for the “purposes of tracking the spread of COVID-19."

It also does not include the civil rights protections in the Democratic version.

Another key difference between the bills is a private right to action, which would let individual consumers sue companies over violations.

Democrats have pushed for that right in previous efforts at data privacy legislation, while Republicans have declined to include it.

The bill introduced by Democrats also explicitly allows states and federal regulators to craft additional rules protecting user data during outbreaks, making the legislation a floor rather than a ceiling.

Republicans have long insisted that federal data privacy legislation should preempt state laws, a position that has gained importance since the passage of California's landmark privacy law, which Republicans have said is too stringent.

These two issues - a private right of action and state preemption - have derailed several prior efforts at creating bipartisan consensus on a federal data privacy law.