Democrats voice privacy concerns about reported Kushner-led effort to collect health data

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Three Democratic lawmakers said the reported establishment of a "far-reaching public health surveillance infrastructure" in collaboration with large technology firms raises important privacy concerns. (turk_stock_photographer/Getty Images)

Three Democratic lawmakers are raising the alarm about a reported effort by the White House to work with health technology companies on the development of a national coronavirus surveillance system.

U.S. senators Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, along with U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, today sent a letter (PDF) to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner demanding answers about "opaque" partnerships with private companies to potentially collect Americans' health information.

“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,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Politico reported this week that Kushner has reached out to a range of health technology companies about creating a national coronavirus surveillance system to give the government a near real-time view of where patients are seeking treatment and for what. Politico based its reporting on conversations with four people involved in the ongoing effort.

RELATED: Gottlieb, Mostashari propose national COVID-19 surveillance system

"The project—based on interviews with seven tech executives, government officials and other people familiar with its contours—would draw on detailed information collected from multiple private-sector databases. It would allow federal officials to continuously track elements like hospitals’ bed availability and the flow of patients into specific emergency rooms across the country—thereby enabling the government to rush resources to parts of the country before they’re hit by a surge of coronavirus cases," Politico healthcare reporter Adam Cancryn wrote.

A White House spokesman denied that such a project exists in a statement to Politico after the article was published and said the article was "completely false." 

There are other efforts underway to use data and technology to track and trace COVID-19. Five healthcare experts—including former top government healthcare officials Scott Gottlieb and Farzad Mostashari—have proposed a plan to build a national COVID-19 surveillance system. 

RELATED: Experts: Transparency key to avoid controversy generated by Google-Ascension data deal

Silicon Valley giants also are building software and technology tools to serve as trusted healthcare resources in the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The White House has even partnered with some companies in these efforts. Apple created a COVID-19 website and app in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Google and Apple announced Friday they are working together to create contact tracing technology to help in the fight against COVID-19.

But with regard to the Kushner-led effort, Democratic lawyers say they are concerned that the White House has not been fully transparent, 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.

"Your office’s denial of the existence of this effort, despite ample corroborating reporting, only compounds concerns we have with lack of transparency," the lawmakers wrote.

RELATED: Google defends use of patient data on Capitol Hill among scrutiny of Ascension deal

The lawmakers are requesting the White House provide Congress more information about which technology companies, data providers and other firms have been approached to participate in the public health surveillance initiative.

Warner, Blumental and Eshoo also want to know what measures the Trump administration has put in place to ensure federal agencies and private sector partners do not misuse or reuse health data for non-pandemic-related purposes, such as for training commercial algorithms.

The Democrats also asked which agency will operate the program and which agencies will have access to the data as well as whether the project will be shut down after the lifting of the national emergency.

Finally, they want assurances the Trump administration will work with Congress to develop strong legal safeguards that ensure public health surveillance data can be effectively collected and used without compromising privacy.

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