Privacy in Pandemic - Senators Announce COVID-19 Data Privacy Bill

May 8, 2020 Published Article

"Data! Data! Data!. . . I can't make bricks without clay." This classic statement from Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches takes on a new meaning in the COVID-19 pandemic. With the plans to begin contact tracing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly moving towards the forefront, a valid and important issue presents itself: how do we treat and protect the data we so desperately need to trace, track, and address the pandemic? U.S. Senators Wicker, Thune, Moran, and Blackburn introduced a possible solution to this problem with the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act, as announced on April 30, 2020. So what does the Act entail? What information is protected? What action would businesses need to take towards individuals, such as consumers or even employees, in order to comply with this new legislation?

WHAT IS THE COVID-19 CONSUMER DATA PROTECTION ACT?

The Act is meant to address the concern regarding data collection and privacy due to large companies, like Google and Apple, adjusting the software within their devices to facilitate digital contact tracing. The Act can be broken up into three parts - the treatment of information; the privacy notice requirements; and the transparency requirements.

First, the Act prohibits the collection, processing, or transfer of certain categories of data without notice and the affirmative express consent of the individual, in order to:

  • Track the spread of COVID-19,
  • Trace the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing, or
  • Determine compliance with social distancing guidelines without the requisite notice to individuals and their express consent.

To accomplish this, the Act also restricts entities in their ability to collect excessive information, stating that an entity cannot collect information beyond what is reasonably necessary to conduct any of the three COVID-19 related purposes listed in the statute. The entity must also provide reasonable administrative, technical, and physical data security policies and practices to protect the information collected. Furthermore, in the event that the entity stops using the information for any of the three COVID-19 purposes, it must delete or de-identify the information it has collected.

Next, the Act describes the requirements for notice to individuals. In order to legally collect, process or transfer the information, the entity needs to provide the consumer with prior notice of the purpose, processing, and transfer of the data through their privacy policy within 14 days of the enactment of the law. This policy would have to:

  • Disclose the consumer's rights in a clear and conspicuous manner prior to or at the point of collection,
  • Be available in a clear and conspicuous manner to the public,
  • Include whether the entity will transfer any of the information it collects in order to track or trace COVID-19 or determine compliance with social distancing,
  • Describe its data retention policy, and
  • Generally describe its data security measures.

Notably, many of these are already requirements common to many privacy policies, including the disclosure regarding the transfer of an individual's information.

In addition, an individual must give their affirmative express consent to such collection, processing and transfer. In other words, an individual must “opt-in” to having their information collected. This would be done through a checked box or electronic signature, as the law prohibits entities from inferring consent through a failure by the individual to take an action stopping the collection. Furthermore, the individual would also need the ability to expressly withdraw their consent, with the entity then having to cease collection, processing, or transfer of the information within 14 days of the revocation. In essence, due to the restriction on transferal, this may result in businesses opting to delete or de-identify data upon a revocation.

Finally, the entity would have to abide by certain reporting and transparency requirements, namely a monthly public report stating how many individuals had information collected, processed or transferred, and describing the categories of the data collected, processed or transferred by the entity and why. This is akin to the California Consumer Privacy Act's treatment of categories of information, though it would require this information to be released on an ongoing, monthly basis.

WHAT DATA IS COVERED?

Notably, the Act only affects a very limited scope of data. The Act covers geolocation data (exact real-time locations), proximity data (approximated location data), and Personal Health Information (any genetic/diagnosis information that can identify someone). This could cover information like Bluetooth communication or real-time tracking based on a cell phone's geolocation features. Notably, Personal Health Information does not include any information that may be covered under HIPAA or the broader categorization of "Biometric" data (i.e. retinal scans, finger prints, etc). Furthermore, and more generally, "publicly available information" is excluded, which includes information from telephone books or online directories, the news media, "video, internet, or audio content" as well as "websites available to the general public on an unrestricted basis." The latter of which potentially would push any and all information made available through social media (i.e. Facebook or Twitter) into the definition of "publicly available information."

HOW IS IT ENFORCED?

Generally, the law would be enforced by the FTC, under the provisions regarding unfair or deceptive acts or practices, similar to other enforcement actions arising out of privacy policies. Notwithstanding, state attorney generals may also bring actions to enforce compliance and obtain damages, civil penalties, restitution, or other compensation on behalf of the residents of the state.

WHAT SHOULD MY COMPANY DO?

If your entity plans on collecting information for tracking COVID-19, measuring social distancing compliance, or contact tracing, it is advisable to include language in your privacy policy now. This could be as simple as adding an additional provision within your privacy policy stating that the entity will retain information to conduct one of the three COVID-19 purposes as laid out in the statute. In addition, this also means that should the entity collect and use employee information for contact tracing, tracking the spread of COVID-19 or ensuring compliance with social distancing measures, it will need to disclose some of the specifics of that process to the employees and have them opt-in for the process.   Finally, for contact tracing purposes, any individual that shares their diagnosis will have to opt-in for the entity to legally collect, process, and transfer that information to others.

While the time to reach compliance is unknown, it is more important than ever to form a compliance plan for privacy legislation if you do not already have a plan in place. If you decide to prepare with us, our firm has created a 90 day California Consumer Privacy Act compliance program (which can be expedited) where our team will collaborate with you to determine a scalable, practical, and reasonable way for you to meet your needs, and we will provide a free initial consultation. For further inquiries or questions related to COVID-19, you can consult with a Task Force attorney by emailing [email protected] or contacting our office directly at 949-854-7000.