U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today announced a paper hearing titled, “Enlisting Big Data in the Fight Against Coronavirus,” on Thursday, April 9, 2020, beginning at 10:00 a.m. The committee and witnesses will submit written statements, questions, and answers to examine recent uses of aggregate and anonymized consumer data to identify potential hotspots of coronavirus transmission and to help accelerate the development of treatments. The committee will also examine how consumers’ privacy rights are being protected and what the U.S. government plans to do with COVID-related data collected at the end of this national emergency.
Mr. Ryan Calo, Law Professor, the University of Washington
- Mr. Graham Dufault, Senior Director for Public Policy, ACT | The App Association
- Ms. Leigh Freund, Chief Executive Officer, Network Advertising Initiative
- Ms. Stacey Gray, Senior Counsel, Future of Privacy Forum
- Mr. Dave Grimaldi, Executive Vice President for Public Policy, Interactive Advertising Bureau
- Ms. Michelle Richardson, Director, Data and Privacy Project, Center for Democracy and Technology
- Mr. Inder Singh, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Kinsa Smart Thermometers
*Witness list subject to change
Paper Hearing Details:
Thursday, April 9, 2020
10: 00 a.m.
Full Committee Paper Hearing
The committee has developed a “paper hearings” process to continue investigative and oversight responsibilities while adhering to public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the start of the paper hearing, the committee will post the chairman’s and ranking member’s opening statements and witness testimony. Member questions will be sent to witnesses by close of business on the day of the paper hearing. Witnesses will have a 96-business-hour turnaround time to answer member questions. The questions and witness responses will be posted on the committee’s website once received. The committee will provide an official transcript for the record. All paper hearing documents will be available online on the hearing page at www.commerce.senate.gov.
*Note: Witness list updated 4/7/2020
Chairman Roger Wicker
Over the past month, the coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on our economy and on Americans’ daily lives. Businesses have shut their doors, children are staying home from school, and nearly all public events have been canceled. The Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to encourage social distancing, and many state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders to their residents. Although extreme, these measures are necessary to stop the spread of the virus and save lives.
As the public and private sectors race to develop a vaccine for this deadly disease, government officials and health-care professionals have turned to what is known as “big data” to help fight the global pandemic. Big data refers to the massive volume of consumer data flowing throughout our economy. This data can be collected from a variety of sources, including smartphones, mobile apps, fitness trackers, connected cars, and other connected products and services. Big data also refers to advanced computing capabilities, which can quickly analyze large data sets to identify trends and make inferences and predictions.
In recognition of the value of big data, Congress recently authorized the CDC, through the bipartisan coronavirus relief package, to develop a modern data surveillance and analytics system. This system is expected to use public health data inputs – including big data – to track the coronavirus more effectively and reduce its spread. State governments are also using big data to monitor the availability of hospital resources and manage supply chains for the distribution of masks and other personal protective medical equipment.
Recent media reports revealed that big data is being used by the mobile advertising industry and technology companies in the United States to track the spread of the virus through the collection of consumer location data. This location data is purported to be in aggregate form and anonymized so that it does not contain consumers’ personally identifiable information. It is intended to help researchers identify where large crowds are forming and pinpoint the source of potential outbreaks. The data may also help predict trends in the transmission of COVID-19 and serve as an early warning system for individuals to self-isolate or quarantine.
In addition to these uses, consumer location data is being analyzed to help track the effectiveness of social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines. Data scientists are also seeking ways to combine artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies with big data to build upon efforts to track patterns, make diagnoses, and identify other environmental or geographic factors affecting the rate of disease transmission.
The European Union is turning to big data to stop the spread of the illness as well. Italy, Germany, and others have sought to obtain consumer location data from telecommunications companies to track COVID-19. To protect consumer privacy, EU member states have committed to using only anonymized and aggregate mobile phone location data. Although the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation does not apply to anonymized data, EU officials have committed to deleting the data once the public health crisis is over.
The potential benefits of big data to help contain the virus and limit future outbreaks could be significant. I look forward to learning more about the promise of big data to address the current crisis. To maximize these benefits, however, privacy risks to consumers will need to be minimized.
Reducing privacy risks begins with understanding how consumers’ location data – and any other information – is being collected when tracking compliance with social distancing measures. Equally important is understanding how that data is anonymized to remove all personally identifiable information and prevent individuals from being re-identified. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about how consumer privacy can be protected at every stage of the data collection process.
I also look forward to exploring how consumers are notified about the collection of their location information and their ability to control or opt out of this data collection if desired. Given the sensitivity of geolocation data, increased transparency into these practices will help protect consumers from data misuse and other unwanted or unexpected data processing.
Finally, I hope to learn more about how location data is being publicly disclosed, with whom it is being shared, and what will be done with any identifiable data at the end of this global pandemic.
Strengthening consumer data privacy through the development of a strong and bipartisan federal data privacy law has been a priority for this Committee. The collection of consumer location data to track the coronavirus, although well intentioned and possibly necessary at this time, further underscores the need for uniform, national privacy legislation. Such a law would provide all Americans with more transparency, choice, and control over their data, as well as ways to keep businesses more accountable to consumers when they seek to use their data for unexpected purposes. It would also provide certainty and clear, workable rules of the road for businesses in all 50 states, and preserve Americans’ trust and confidence that their data will be protected and secure no matter where they live.
Thank you, again, to our witnesses for their participation.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
Mr. Ryan CaloLaw ProfessorUniversity of Washington
Mr. Graham DufaultSenior Director for Public PolicyACT | The App Association
Ms. Leigh FreundChief Executive OfficerNetwork Advertising Initiative
Ms. Stacey GraySenior CounselFuture of Privacy Forum
Mr. Dave GrimaldiExecutive Vice President for Public PolicyInteractive Advertising Bureau
Ms. Michelle RichardsonDirector, Data and Privacy ProjectCenter for Democracy and Technology
Mr. Inder SinghChief Executive Officer and FounderKinsa Smart Thermometers