Despite assurances, a Senator wants Apple and Google's CEOs to be 'personally liable' for contact tracing privacy

Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology
Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology (Image credit: Apple)

What you need to know

  • Senator Josh Hawley has written to Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook.
  • He says that he has serious concerns about Apple and Google's COVID-19 contact tracing program.
  • He wants both CEOs to be personally liable for the privacy of its users.

Senator Josh Hawley has written to the CEOs of both Apple and Google, demanding that they should be 'personally liable' if their respective companies stop protecting user privacy within its COVID-19 contact tracing technology.

In the letter, dated April 21, 2020 he writes:

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.

Senator Hawley is a real stickler for big tech companies, and has taken great joy in previously bashing TikTok, Apple, and Apple some more in recent months.

Hawley's concerns raised seem to revolve around the prospect of Apple and Google pairing the data from the project with GPS data "that both your companies already collect," which he says could reveal identities. He further notes:

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.

Hawley cited Google's privacy track record as "not exactly reassuring", and said that an unprecedented project requires "unprecedented assurance on your part". As such, he wants Cook and Pichai to commit to being "personally liable if you stop protecting privacy."

This is of course, absurd, as no CEO would/could ever be held personally liable for the actions/failings of a company. Furthermore, the joint statement and technical documents released by Apple and Google have already given these assurances. They list the following privacy safe measures:

  • Explicit user consent required
  • Doesn't collect personally identifiable information or user location data
  • List of people you've been in contact with never leaves your phone
  • People who test positive are not identified to other users, Google or Apple
  • Will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management
  • Doesn't matter if you have an Android phone or an iPhone - works across both

Senator Hawley is just another man, yelling at another cloud.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9