Google launches Verily site for coronavirus tests, sparking health privacy concerns
Google is throwing everything it has at the coronavirus response, including launching a new website to direct people to appropriate medical services and up-to-date information on the pandemic—but some people are concerned about being forced to share personal data to access the program. Google’s terms of service for the special health project, however, promise that no data will be shared with insurance companies or applied to advertising.
Over the weekend, Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlined where the company stood in its efforts to create a rapid-response website for people looking to get tested for coronavirus, or COVID-19. “In this unprecedented moment, we feel a great responsibility to help,” Pichai said in a blog post, detailing Google’s work. “We’ll keep doing everything we can to deliver on our mission, and help people take care of themselves and their communities.”
Last week, President Donald Trump touted Google’s participation in the pandemic response. By Monday, the site it developed through Verily Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is Google’s parent company, began operating for people in parts of California.
Critics have questioned the data collection policies of the Verily site, including the need to use a Google account to sign into the program. Data privacy advocates like Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of Sparrow Advisors, a digital consulting firm, said the coronavirus site could collect sensitive personal information that could later be used in ways participants never intended.
“The nature of digital data is such that it lingers forever,” Milicevic says during a phone interview on Monday. “Once this crisis is inevitably over, that data survives someplace.”
The fear is that people who sign up through Verily will hand over private medical data that could then be attached to their Google accounts. Verily’s terms of service do say that none of the data will be used for advertising purposes. Other terms of the service promise to “not share any information with your insurance or medical providers without your consent.”
Google was not immediately available to comment on its consumer privacy protections.
Other privacy watchdogs have called Verily a data-mining program couched as a public service. It’s a sign of the times that Google would face such suspicions as the general public becomes more aware of how data is collected and as new laws are being written to control how that data can be used. In 2018, the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation, which enforced more transparency around how data is collected and used. The U.S. is following suit with new protections popping up like the California Consumer Privacy Act.
Google is working with U.S. public health officials to design web-based tools that can help with the coronavirus pandemic. The Verily site guides people through a questionnaire that tells them whether they are eligible for testing and where to get tested. The site has been limited, so far, and serves just the Bay Area in California.
“Verily personnel who need to contact you, such as staff to schedule your testing, will have access to direct identification information (your name, street address, phone number, and email),” Verily says on its website. “The information you provide may also be shared with the health care professionals who collect your specimen, the clinical laboratory that processes your specimen, the California Department of Public Health, and potentially other federal, state, and local health authorities, and other entities that assist with the testing program.”