Verily, a subsidiary of Alphabet that is focused on life sciences and healthcare, is a sister company to Google. Verily is working in collaboration with the California Governor’s office, federal, state, and local public health authorities to create an online COVID-19 screener survey.
Californians will be able to take an online COVID-19 screener survey through Project Baseline beginning Monday, March 16. People who meet eligibility and requirements for testing will be directed to mobile testing sites based on capacity, where they will complete a nasal swab test. Once tested, individuals will be informed of their COVID-19 test results within a few days.
To be clear, Verily’s COVID-19 Screening Survey is not available outside of California. It also doesn’t cover all of California (at least, not upon launch). Verily says the COVID-19 testing pilot program will start by testing the highest risk individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is a significant volume of cases. Verily explains, “As more testing kits and sites become available, we plan to scale the capacity”.
CNBC reported that in order to qualify for a screening, users are required to log in with their Google account. Users also have to agree to allowing information to be potentially shared with Google. According to CNBC, Verily asks for the user’s name, address, email, phone number and health information – all of which can be shared and used by various government and health authorities, and for “public health purposes”.
It is a good idea to have something that can remotely screen people to determine how likely it is that they have COVID-19. Doing so enhances social distancing, because users can access the screener from home.
However, Verily has some obvious flaws. It is currently only usable in a very limited location. It will exclude users who don’t have a Google account (or who don’t want to have their Google account connected to the Screening Survey). It also collects and shares users’ data, and does not appear to give them an option to disallow that. This could potentially be in violation of California’s CCPA.
If Verily (and Google) really wanted to help with COVID-19, they could create the screening tool without using it to collect and share people’s personal information. To me, it feels like Verily and Google are using this opportunity to get more people to sign up for a Google account, and also to benefit from people’s data. That’s not a nice thing to do, especially to people who are afraid they might have COVID-19.