Apple responds to senators’ privacy fears over COVID-19 screening tools

Democratic Senators  Bob Menendez, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to Apple on April 3, regarding privacy concerns for the company’s COVID-19 screening tool which was launched in March. The new tools help users determine if they should seek medical help or stay in quarantine, in case of any coronavirus symptoms that might appear.

Apple has now responded to these questions about its screening services. The company promises that the tool includes “strong privacy and security protections”. Apple also promised that the company is not going to sell the data it collects through the service.

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The response letter reveals the terms of Apple’s agreement with the US Department of Health and Human Services. These terms include prohibitions on sharing any identifiable user data with the CDC. Apple senior government affairs director Timothy Powderly also toild the Senate that the company’s tools aren’t covered by the health privacy law HIPAA. HIPAA governs if any company is allowed to disclose data to any third-party application or website. Apple claims that there are no third parties involved in data collection over its screening tool.

The screening tool does not demand personal information from users, but rather about recent travel info, exposure to any infected people, age, and possible symptoms. The information being collected is only necessary to determine whether the user should be tested for COVID-19 or not. These tools are separate from Apple’s contact tracing system it is developing alongside Google. The contact tracing system is set to be released mid-May and has privacy concerns of its own.

According to Bloomberg, Apple’s letter says the following:

Apple does not currently collect any information entered into the website and app by individuals. We apply the principle of data minimization to all of its consumer products and services, and our COVID-19 resources are no exception. Guided by this principle, Apple currently collects only the information necessary to support the operation of the COVID-19 website and app, such as users’ usage of the tool and app; this information does not include information entered by individuals. Apple only retains this information for so long as is necessary to support the operation of the COVID-19 website and app. Information no longer needed is deleted or rendered permanently unrecoverable in accordance with industry standards.

Apple developed the app at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The app is proving to be a vital tool for people in the US to avoid any unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 patients by not making trips to hospitals for minor symptoms.

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