Apple is once again coming under scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, but this time as a result of its attempts to perform a public service for its users in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, Apple released its own first-party COVID-19 app in partnership with the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Coronavirus Task Force, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with a companion website that would allow anybody — not just Apple customers and device users — to get trusted information on the pandemic as well as providing self-assessment questions to help people determine the next steps if they think that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Sadly, however, with the many privacy blunders that big tech companies have been falling into over the years, we’ve all become a bit cynical, and U.S. lawmakers are no exception. According to Bloomberg, several democratic senators sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook last week asking him to answer questions about the privacy of the new COVID-19 screening app and website, wanting to know if Apple putting users’ privacy and security at risk.
The group, which includes Senators Bob Menendez, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal, expressed concern “for the safety and security of Americans’ private health data,” asking Apple to explain what data-sharing practices and safeguards it has in place and whether the app complies with the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The senators also want Apple to disclose the terms of the agreements it made with federal and state governments in developing the app.
Apple’s Privacy Statement
Although Apple already makes it clear on its website that it’s not collecting any personal data from users, it seems that the statements aren’t enough to reassure the senators, who acknowledge Apple’s claims that no data is being collected, but clearly want Apple to confirm that with them directly in writing.
The senators acknowledge that Apple says the software does not “require a sign-in or association with a user’s Apple ID, and users’ individual responses will not be sent to Apple or any government organization.”Bloomberg
Apple also addresses the privacy of the tool on its website, noting that “Apple is not collecting your answers from the screening tool,” while acknowledging that some anonymous information may be collected about how users use the website, but it “will not personally identify you.”
To make a point, 9to5Mac tested Apple’s COVID-19 app, and we also followed up with our own tests to confirm their findings, which are that it does not send any data back to Apple or any third parties, and in fact doesn’t make any network connections except to download images.
It’s probably a reflection on the world that we live in that such a clear statement can’t be taken at face value, although it’s perhaps ironic that the U.S. senators are questioning the privacy aspects of the app rather than raising the more typical spectre of antitrust allegations that are usually raised whenever Apple releases a first-party app, especially considering its completely understandable but hardline stance toward third-party apps that provide information related to the ongoing pandemic.