Congress Considers Privacy in the Context of COVID-19 and Gets it All Wrong

Ian Adams —  20 May 2020 — Leave a comment

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ian Adams, (Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The COVID-19 crisis has recast virtually every contemporary policy debate in the context of public health, and digital privacy is no exception. Conversations that once focused on the value and manner of tracking to enable behavioral advertising have shifted. Congress, on the heels of years of false-starts and failed efforts to introduce nationwide standards, is now lurching toward framing privacy policy through the lens of  proposed responses to the virus.

To that end, two legislative vehicles, one from Senate Republicans and another from a bicameral group of Democrats, have been offered specifically in response to the hitherto unprecedented occasion that society has to embrace near-universally available technologies to identify, track, and remediate the virus. The bills present different visions of what it means to protect and promote the privacy of Americans in the COVID-19 era, both of which are flawed (though, to differing degrees) as a matter of principle and practice. 

Failure as a matter of principle

Privacy has always been one value among many, not an end in itself, but a consideration to be weighed in the pursuit of life’s many varied activities (a point explored in greater depth here). But while the value of privacy in the context of exigent circumstances has traditionally waned, it has typically done so to make room for otherwise intrusive state action

The COVID-19 crisis presents a different scenario. Now, private firms, not the state, are best positioned to undertake the steps necessary to blunt the virus’ impact and, as good fortune would have it, substantial room already exists within U.S. law for firms to deploy software that would empower people to remediate the virus. Indeed, existing U.S. law affords people the ability to weigh their privacy preferences directly with their level of public health concern.

Strangely, in this context, both political parties have seen fit to advance restrictive privacy visions specific to the COVID-19 crisis that would substantially limit the ability of individuals to use tools to make themselves, and their communities, safer. In other words, both parties have offered proposals that make it harder to achieve the public health outcomes they claim to be seeking at precisely the moment that governments (federal, state, and local) are taking unprecedented (and liberty restricting) steps to achieve exactly those outcomes.

Failure as a matter of practice

The dueling legislative proposals are structured in parallel (a complete breakdown is available here). Each includes provisions concerning the entities and data to be covered, the obligations placed upon entities interacting with covered data, and the scope, extent and power of enforcement measures. While the scope of the entities and data covered vary significantly, with the Democratic proposal encumbering far more of each, they share a provision requiring both “opt-in” consent for access and use of data and a requirement that a mechanism exist to revoke that consent. 

The bipartisan move to affirmative consent represents a significant change in the Congressional privacy conversation. Hitherto, sensitive data have elicited calls for context-dependent levels of privacy, but no previous GOP legislative proposal had suggested the use of an “opt-in” mechanism. The timing of this novel bipartisanship could not be worse because, in the context of COVID-19 response, using the FTC’s 2012 privacy report as a model, the privacy benefits of raising the bar for the adoption of tools to track the course of the virus are likely substantially outweighed by the benefits that don’t just accrue to the covered entity, but to society as a whole with firms relatively freer to experiment with COVID-19-tracking technologies. 

There is another way forward. Instead of introducing design restraints and thereby limiting the practical manner in which firms go about developing tools to address COVID-19, Congress should be moving to articulate discrete harms related to unintended or coerced uses of information that it would like to prevent. For instance: defining what would constitute a deceptive use of COVID-related health information, or clarifying what fraudulent inducement should involve for purposes of downloading a contract tracing app. At least with particularized harms in mind policymakers and the public will more readily be able to assess and balance the value of what is gained in terms of privacy versus what is lost in terms of public health capabilities.

Congress, and the broader public policy debate around privacy, has come to a strange place. The privacy rights that lawmakers are seeking to create, utterly independent of potential privacy harms, pose a substantial new regulatory burden to firms attempting to achieve the very public health outcomes for which society is clamoring. In the process, arguably far more significant impingements upon individual liberty, in the form of largely indiscriminate restrictions on movement, association and commerce, are necessary to achieve what elements of contract tracing promises. That’s not just getting privacy wrong – that’s getting privacy all wrong.

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