In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Senator Josh Hawley wants both CEOs to take personal responsibility for customer privacy.
Apple and Google recently announced their efforts to working on coronavirus tracking apps that will use a common API and eliminate the incompatibilities that often plague iOS and Android interaction. The apps will use Bluetooth and operate on a decentralized model to ensure user privacy.
Despite assurances by both companies that every effort is being made to protect privacy, Senator Hawley is not convinced. In particular, Hawley is concerned the anonymized data could be paired with other datasets to identify individuals and is calling on Cook and Pichai to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.
“Americans are right to be skeptical of this project,” writes Hawley. “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.’”
Interestingly, Hawley only makes mention of Google’s issues with privacy, as Apple has a well-earned reputation of being one of the strongest privacy advocates in the tech industry. Tim Cook has stated that Apple believes privacy is a fundamental human right, and the company’s actions support that claim. Even so, Hawley wants the executives of both companies to be personally liable for customer privacy, as it relates to any proposed coronavirus tracking app.
“A project this unprecedented requires an unprecedented assurance on your part,” Hawley continues. “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.”
The senator clearly voices concerns that millions of individuals have expressed in the wake of Apple and Google’s announcement. Hopefully, Senator Hawley’s letter will help ensure both companies do everything possible to protect user privacy.