Press "Enter" to skip to content

Privacy Concerns Surround Online COVID-19 Screening

The highly limited access to COVID-19 testing across the US has forced the government and private sector to come up with alternative methods to help diagnose this disease. Google’s sister company, Verily, has rolled out beta testing for an online COVID-19 screening service in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since the announcement by the White House on Friday, the confusion surrounding the website has been replaced with privacy concerns.

How Does this Service Really Work?

The service, hosted on Verily’s Project Baseline website, is designed to function as a pretest for concerned individuals. By offering an online screening to those contemplating getting tested prior to them seeking out medical care, Verily hopes to minimize wasted tests and the workload for medical providers. The service will also help minimize the amount of people leaving the house during the San Francisco Bay Area’s “shelter in place” directive.

The website is designed to calculate whether a COVID-19 test is necessary based on the user’s responses to the questionnaire. After the results are analyzed, the website will then suggest a course of action and, if necessary, help make an appointment at a testing site in San Mateo or Santa Clara county — both of which are the epicenter of the Bay Area’s outbreak. Unfortunately, Verily can no longer help with making an appointment at a testing facility because there are no more available.

Since the announcement of the project by the White House in which President Trump “oversold” and “inflated the concept”, Google has made an announcement that they are working with the US government to roll out a nationwide version of this program.

covid-19 screening privacy
Photo via Pexels
Privacy Concerns Abound

Although this service will certainly help to reduce health care providers getting bogged down, it has not been created without sparking privacy concerns.

One of the main aspects of the site that triggered the skepticism is the requirement for a Google account. If you do not have one, you will be required to make one. You are then put into a position of requiring to accept all of their security agreements in order to use the service. This is considered “forced consent” in the European Unions sweeping online privacy regulations, a fact which a Verily spokesperson responded to with “the Baseline COVID-19 Program is currently only intended for people in the US.”

Another nuanced aspect of the website that is rightfully concerning is the fact that it only tells you that appointments are closed after you have completed a large portion of the questionnaire.

Verily also acknowledged that there was third-party access to the collected data, although they insist on their website’s FAQ that the sharing of data will only be done with additional consent. That reassurance does not mean much if access to the service truly involves “forced consent.”

Photo via Pexels
What do Experts have to Say?

Lindsey Barrett, a staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation Communications and Technology Clinic, addressed the sharing of data with third parties by saying, “I think the more entities you’re sharing sensitive health information with, the more vectors there are for both abuse and screw-ups.”

The president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg, addressed the requirement of a Google account by saying, “It is critically important that Google does not collect any personally identifiable information at the coronavirus website … And there should be no covert tracking techniques, such as the retention of IP addresses linked to identifiable users. Moreover, no one should be required to use a Google account to gain access to public health information.”

Executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Albert Fox Cahn, responded to the issue of “forced consent” by saying, “What’s most chilling is that most states have no prohibition on this sort of coercion, forcing people to sign away their privacy to access vital government services … If profit-driven companies are going to play a central role in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take steps to ensure that they are serving the public, not just their bottom line.”

The fast roll out of the much needed service may be a factor in why these concerns have arisen. Regardless, there will always be concerns surrounding personal data being given online in our current world where online privacy means nothing.