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Big Data 'Virtual' Hearing Raises Big Questions

Members of the Senate Commerce Committee on both sides of the aisle clearly have concerns about how tech companies will protect privacy as they are enlisted to use Big Data to track population, and virus movements, during the COVID-19 pandemic in the effort to mitigate it. 

Those members fired almost four dozen questions at Interactive Advertising Bureau EVP Dave Grimaldi, all of them about protecting privacy, as the committee tried its hand at a "paper," in this case virtual paper, hearing. 

Related: IAB Tells Hill that Advertising is Critical to Connectivity 

Grimaldi and other witnesses for an April 9 "hearing" on using Big Data to fight the COVID-19 pandemic submitted testimony to the committee--posted on its website, after which the members submitted questions to those witnesses on the website. 

"As governments seek to use new technologies in the fight against COVID-19, it is imperative that privacy rights be protected," Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Grimaldi, asking: "Are there specific examples of app-based programs you can recommend to policymakers that are both useful in the fight against COVID-19 and respectful of individual privacy rights?" 

He asked if privacy and the effectiveness of using Big Data tracking was always a tradeoff, or was there a way to have both. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, wants Grimaldi to weigh in on the smart phone-based contract tracing and the "extraordinary privacy and other civil liberties concerns" that raises. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) took issue with IAB's assertion that its members' location data collection was used in the aggregate, but said recent news articles on tracking stay-at-home patterns suggested that the analysis of that data was based on continuous monitoring of specific individuals. "Clearly, location data is being retained [by IAB] members in a granular and linked manner – and are not retained in an aggregate fashion." 

Related: All the Latest on COVID-19 Impact on Industry

Blumenthal pushed beyond the COVID-19 tracking issue to "social media harvesting," asking for a list of IAB members who "harvest, process, or disclose to third parties information gathered from social media accounts or email inboxes for the purposes of audience segmentation, building profiles, ad targeting, advertising analytics, or other commercial purposes not technically necessary for the provision of a service or product that an individual has requested?" 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked what Grimaldi thought about the government creating a National Infectious Disease Forecasting Center, similar to the National Weather Center, which would provide "the best modeling and forecasting to policy makers and public health professionals before, during, and after a disease outbreak." 

Grimaldi will have about two weeks to respond.