In San Francisco, Verily mobile testing clinics have also been sidelined. County officials declined to provide an explanation. However, multiple people with knowledge of the testing efforts said the Verily registration process proved chaotic for homeless people and others in the Tenderloin district, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Kenneth Kim, clinical director of Glide, an outreach center that helped run the Tenderloin site, said many homeless residents coming in for testing had Gmail accounts, as Verily required, but could not remember their passwords. When staffers at the testing site tried to help them retrieve their passwords, they found that Google’s two-factor authentication process required users to have the same phone number as when they signed up, which few of the homeless participants did.
Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, who leads San Francisco County’s testing strategy at the Department of Public Health, confirmed that the partnership with Verily was “currently on hold.” He declined to provide further details.
In response to questions, Verily spokesperson Kathleen Parkes said the program requires users to register with Gmail accounts because Google’s authentication procedures safeguard sensitive data and protect “against unknown individuals sending or receiving information with serious consequences for health or well-being.”
Conversations with San Francisco and Alameda remain “active,” Parkes said. The company did not respond to specific questions about the testing disparities cited by community leaders.
Verily’s role in COVID-19 testing has been shadowed by controversy since President Donald Trump told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference in March that “Google” was developing a screening website and testing tool. “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now,” he said. “They’ve made tremendous progress.”
At the time, COVID-19 tests were in short supply and Trump was under pressure to increase capacity as infections ballooned in California, New York and other states. But Google was not building such a website. Instead, Verily, another Alphabet Inc. subsidiary focused on life sciences, was in the early stages of developing a website to help triage people in need of COVID-19 testing, Google clarified in a tweet. It planned to unveil a pilot program in two Bay Area counties.
Days later, Newsom announced a California partnership with Verily that so far has paid the company $55 million to establish both mobile and brick-and-mortar testing sites. In addition, Verily has partnered with Rite Aid to manage testing at approximately 300 sites in multiple states under a $122.6 million federal contract between the pharmacy chain and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. California’s Verily contracts are in place through Nov. 30; the HHS contract is set to expire in January.
Participants in the Verily initiative sign an authorization form that says their information can be shared with multiple third parties involved in the testing program, including unnamed contractors and state and federal health authorities.
“While the form tells you that Verily may share data with ‘entities that assist with the testing program,’ it doesn’t say who those entities are. If one of those unnamed and unknown entities violates your privacy by misusing your data, you have no way to know and no way to hold them accountable,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy.
The policy states Verily will not use the data collected for its own research or meld it with other Google products without the user’s permission. But it notes participants may be invited to share their data for such research, and the testing portal prominently features links inviting participants to sign up for other Verily research.