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Democrats raising issue with White House COVID-19 info efforts

coronavirus politics
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A group of Democratic leaders is raising questions about reports that the White House has assembled technology and health care firms to establish a far-reaching national coronavirus surveillance system.

In a letter, signed by U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and with U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), concerns were raised that the White House has not been fully transparent about the effort, particularly in light of the significant data privacy issues associated with sharing Americans’ personal health information with corporations that have a checkered history when it comes to protecting patient and user privacy.

“While we support greater efforts to track and combat the spread of COVID-19 – and have been alarmed by the notably delayed response to the crisis by this Administration – we have serious concerns with the secrecy of these efforts and their impact on the health privacy of all Americans. Your office’s denial of the existence of this effort, despite ample corroborating reporting, only compounds concerns we have with lack of transparency,” the members of Congress wrote.

In the letter, the members noted that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which Congress passed in 1996, failed to foresee the recent boom in health technologies allowing medical data to be shared without patient or doctor consent, enabling companies that have previously been accused of privacy abuses to handle sensitive patient data without strong privacy protections.

The reported establishment of far-reaching public health surveillance infrastructure in collaboration with large technology firms, against the backdrop of these failures of HIPAA, raises important privacy concerns.

“This growing health pandemic further exacerbates increasing concerns about the role large tech firms are starting to play in our health care sector. Health care entities are increasingly entering into secret data sharing partnerships with dominant technology platforms. These partnerships have bolstered the platforms’ ability to exploit consumer data and leverage their hold on data into nascent markets such as health analytics. Contrary to the fundamental, animating principle of HIPAA, this encroachment is occurring without the knowledge or consent of doctors or patients through opaque business agreements and exceptions. We fear that further empowering technology firms and providing unfettered access to sensitive health information during the COVID-19 pandemic could fatally undermine health privacy in the United States,” wrote the members of Congress.

“Similarly, we have tragically seen that COVID-19 is following and exacerbating existing health disparities and inequalities among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. A public health surveillance system should be able capture these parameters in order to ensure our response addresses the heightened risk to these communities. Yet we must be cautious about the impact and further use of this sensitive information, which also poses fraught risk for bias and civil rights violations, as we have seen when algorithmic systems used in calculating health premiums, employment determinations, and credit evaluations have led to discriminatory outcomes.”