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Democrats question Kushner about health surveillance privacy during pandemic

Lawmakers want to know about White House contacts with technology companies

Vice President Mike Pence, right, and White House adviser Jared Kushner, have been working together on the White House coronavirus task force. Democrats want more information about Kushner's contact with technology companies.
Vice President Mike Pence, right, and White House adviser Jared Kushner, have been working together on the White House coronavirus task force. Democrats want more information about Kushner's contact with technology companies. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers are raising new questions about the role of senior White House adviser Jared Kushner in the response to the coronavirus, particularly when it comes to the government’s work with big tech companies.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, led a Friday letter to Kushner with fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. Eshoo is the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

The three Democrats are expressing concerns about relationships between public health surveillance efforts and companies like Verily, with is owned by Google’s parent company.

“Given reports indicating that the Administration has solicited help from companies with checkered histories in protecting user privacy, we have serious concerns that these public health surveillance systems may serve as beachheads for far-reaching health data collection efforts that go beyond responding to the current crisis,” the members of Congress wrote. “Public health surveillance efforts must be accompanied by governance measures that provide durable privacy protections and account for any impacts on our rights.”

Part of the concern stems from the possibility that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) standards are not being followed by technology partners that may be working with the government to respond to the current pandemic.

Among the asks lawmakers are making of Kushner is for disclosure of which tech and data companies have been approached by the administration to assist in surveillance efforts tied to stopping COVID-19.

They also want to know whether the actions being taken to share information with the technology sector will end when the current public health crisis has abated.

“When will the federal government stop collecting and sharing health data with the private sector for the public health surveillance initiative? Will the Administration commit to a sunset period after the lifting of the national emergency?” the lawmakers asked.

“This growing health pandemic further exacerbates increasing concerns about the role large tech firms are starting to play in our health care sector. Health care entities are increasingly entering into secret data sharing partnerships with dominant technology platforms,” the lawmakers wrote to Kushner. “These partnerships have bolstered the platforms’ ability to exploit consumer data and leverage their hold on data into nascent markets such as health analytics. Contrary to the fundamental, animating principle of HIPAA, this encroachment is occurring without the knowledge or consent of doctors or patients through opaque business agreements and exceptions.”

Politico reported about the efforts by Kushner’s team to reach out to technology companies Tuesday evening, and the White House did not comment for that story, though a spokesman for Kushner himself later claimed it was “completely false.”

Kushner’s official role is working in coordination with the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence on private-sector outreach projects. But some of the actions of the presidential son-in-law and the nature of his own business interests have raised further questions.

For instance, the insurance company Oscar Health, which is closely connected to Kushner, was reported by The Atlantic at the end of March to have been involved in building a government website for coronavirus testing information.

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