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Contact Tracing Apps and Consumer Privacy

Posted Jul 10, 2020

The persistent global spread of COVID-19 has created an immediate need for tracking the virus’ spread. Governments, health authorities, and tech companies worldwide are currently using technology and data collection to help identity, track, and contain the virus, as well as anticipate future outbreaks. Contract tracing apps are starting to pop up in some countries but the collection of personal information has users raising some concerns.

Awareness of Contact Tracing Apps
Contact tracing apps alert people that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Those people could then get tested and self-isolate.  Back in April, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to develop contact tracing technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus. Using Bluetooth technology, smartphone users will be able to opt-in to be informed if they have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. 

More than a month after this announcement from two of the biggest tech giants, many Americans were still not very informed on what contact tracing apps are. AdColony’s survey revealed that 70% of respondents were aware of them but only 31% understood what they do and how they work. Furthermore, 30% of respondents were not aware of contract tracing apps.  

How Likely are U.S. Adults to Install a Contact Tracing App on their Phones?
Even as the public learns more about contact tracing technology, it has been a challenge to get them to use the apps. Research from Oxford University states that 60% of a country’s population would have to download a tracing app in order for it to be effective. In May, Iceland had achieved the largest penetration of any virus-tracking app, with 38% of its 364,000 inhabitants installing it. Singapore, which has been at the forefront of the development of this technology, has seen about 2.1 million downloads, approximately 37% of the country’s population. Iceland and Singapore download rates are still well below the recommended 60% threshold. 

Most states in the U.S. have been slow or outright resistant to Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API. Only four states (Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Virginia) have said they would use the software to develop their tracing apps. So far, there has been no indication of an effort to introduce the technology at a federal level. Even if states use the API, will people in the U.S. install a tracing app on their mobile devices? More than half of respondents (52%) said they were likely to download a contract tracing app while 26% said it was unlikely.

Privacy and Doubt on Effectiveness Are the Top Concerns
Getting people to download a contact tracing app is proving to be a hard sell for a number of reasons with privacy being the main issue. According to survey results, 61% of respondents cited privacy concerns as a reason to not install an app. 44% of respondents are unsure if the technology would work well. People are also concerned it would make them anxious or it will drain their phone battery.

Although consumers are wary of consenting to be tracked by government authorities, they are willing to divulge personal data if they believe it will help keep them safe and secure. More health and location data will be available to marketers but they need to be cautious about how they will use it. Anonymized data sets could help them better understand consumer attitudes by region and use their findings to inform long term planning. Marketers just need to continue being mindful of compliance because GDPR and CCPA still apply, even during a pandemic.

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