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 WarnerGrenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mnuchin sees 'strong likelihood' of another relief package; Warner says some businesses 'may not come back' at The Hill's Advancing America's Economy summit 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: Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added protections | ACLU calls on House to block warrantless web browsing surveillance | Dems introduce COVID-19 privacy bill Democrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation Hillicon Valley: Experts raise security concerns about online voting | Musk finds supporter in Trump | Officials warn that Chinese hackers targeting COVID-19 research groups MORE (D-Calif), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Action on driverless cars hits speed bump as Congress focuses on pandemic Merger moratorium takes center stage in antitrust debate MORE (D-Ill.) and Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneHillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga says supporting small business single most important thing we should do now; Teva's Brendan O'Grady says U.S. should stockpile strategic reserve in drugs like Strategic Oil Reserve FCC commissioner, House Democrat call for expanding broadband access during pandemic 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 ClarkeDemocrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation NY Democrats call for mortgage forgiveness in next coronavirus relief bill Hispanic Caucus pushes McConnell on 'Dreamer' bill MORE (D-N.Y.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation Hillicon Valley: Experts raise security concerns about online voting | Musk finds supporter in Trump | Officials warn that Chinese hackers targeting COVID-19 research groups Democrats introduce legislation to ensure internet access for college students 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.