By Peter Ondish, Ph.D. (Postdoctoral Research Associate), Kaylee M. Lukacena, M.A. (Research Development Manager), Cristina Alvarez-Mingote, Ph.D. (Associate Director, CSBS)
The Center for Social and Behavioral Science recently launched a statewide survey to assess Illinoisians’ attitudes toward technology that may be used to combat COVID-19, including 1) track-and-trace mobile applications, and 2) status indicator applications. Our results indicate that privacy concerns are quite high for both kinds of mobile apps. Favorability toward COVID-19 apps is modest and dependent on several factors, such as which organization controls the data and personal motivations for using the app.
Attitudes towards Technology
As COVID-19 spreads, some governments have begun using powerful cell phone geolocation data to track and attempt to contain the virus (Halbfinger, Kershner, & Bergman, 2020). However helpful, the usage of cellphone data has been criticized by privacy advocates (Timberg & Harwell, 2020) and remains controversial among citizens (Pew, 2020). General concerns about privacy were high; 40.6% reported being very concerned about their privacy on mobile applications (32.4% somewhat concerned, 19.0% a little concerned, 8.0% not concerned). Perhaps due to these privacy concerns, the acceptability of both kinds of mobile apps modest (see Figure 1): 41.1% reported they would be willing to use a track-and-trace app (36.9% maybe; 21.9% no) and 46.0% reported they would be willing to use a status app (35.5% maybe; 18.5% no). These results dovetail with national surveys that suggest that less than half of participants may be willing to use cell phone apps to combat COVID-19 (Pew, 2020).
Figure 1: Willingness to use a COVID-19 mobile application by application type.
The open-ended responses further elucidate these findings. Many respondents mentioned that the information collected and available on the apps would violate their privacy, especially in the context of HIPAA compliance. In other words, respondents were skeptical that their health information would be protected if it were readily available on an app. One participant stated, “Not sure if I want to broadcast my health status to the world.” Others expressed concerns that an app could inadvertently create more harm than good by increasing fear and discrimination.
One respondent stated “Tracking health status as a means of permitting mobility of citizens is wrong. I strongly oppose any effort to single out people based on health status. We have seen this kind of discrimination before: HIV/AIDS, smokers, etc.” Despite the reluctance of some respondents to trust apps, others felt the pandemic warrants the risk of adopting the technology: “Something that works quickly needs to be done. We must sacrifice some rights for the good of the whole.” The data demonstrates the need for clear assurances that show apps for track-and-trace and status indication will not violate any privacy laws.
Factors Shaping Adoption
Several factors may shape the adoption of COVID-19 apps. Across both app types, approximately 69% of responders reported that the organization offering the potential app would matter in their decision to use the app (about 23% reported that it did not matter, and approximately 9% reported that it might matter). Participants were most trustful of a potential track-and-trace app (see Figure 2, where 1=not at all, 5=very much) controlled by their medical providers (M=3.35, SD=1.25) and health insurers (M= 3.11, SD=1.27), and least trustful of a potential track-and-trace app controlled by federal (M=2.64, SD=1.32) and state government (M=2.76, SD=1.32). Trust in a public university was relatively moderate (M=2.93, SD=1.28). Similar numbers were obtained for the status app.
Figure 2: Reported degree of trust across organizations. Error bars represent standard errors of the means.
These findings were mirrored in the open-ended responses. Many respondents stated fears that the government would have substantial access to private information within the confines of COVID-19, often referencing a “Big Brother” approach to surveillance. Despite the lack of trust expressed for some organizations, others were perceived as more credible and trustworthy. One respondent stated, “There is a lot of stigma with sharing personal info on apps. However, putting them in the hands of trusted medical professionals would make people more inclined to use them”. Collectively, the data shows that the organization hosting the app plays a key role in the potential adoption of the technology.
It is also crucial to understand the motivational forces that shape whether users are likely to utilize a COVID-19 app (see Figure 3). The greatest reason stated for using a track-and-trace app (assessed on a 5-pt. Likert scale) was the potential to weaken the economic impact of COVID-19 (M=3.38, SD=1.30), followed closely by the potential to protect our collective health (M=3.23, SD=1.31). Participants were relatively uncompelled by other countries’ use of track-and-trace apps (M=2.88, SD=1.31). These results suggest that appeals to utilize the apps may be most effective by talking about getting economically “back to normal” and by emphasizing personal safety.
Figure 3. Agreement with explanations for why respondents might personally use a track-and-trace app. Error bars represent standard errors of the means.
The potential economic benefit of adopting an app was salient in the open-ended responses provided by participants. One participant specifically stated, “Tracing is vitally necessary to reopen the states. An app is more likely to be used by people and can expedite the process of more thorough and efficient tracing. I think it’s a smart way to get the economy back on track.” Respondents also saw the value of an app as it could provide a “safety net” for themselves, their families, and other community members. One respondent expressed their support for an app by stating “I would be more aware of what situations my family and I need to avoid.” Furthermore, respondents noted that an app would help ease discomfort as people try to return to “normal” with their tasks and responsibilities: “I feel that knowing I was in close contact with someone will put me a little at ease instead of wondering who has the virus and who doesn’t have it. I deal with a lot of people daily at my job and my job is categorized as essential.” Overall, we see that the multifaceted motivations for adoption of a track-and-trace app and/or status indicator should be taken into consideration when designing messages promoting such apps.
Participants were recruited from a panel survey conducted by Dynata, INC (https://www.dynata.com/). The sample consisted of N=1,993 individuals residing in Illinois (49.9% Female, mean age=44.7, SD=16.7).
Anderson, M. & Auxier, B. (2020, April 16). Most Americans don’t think cellphone tracking will help limit COVID-19, are divided on whether it’s acceptable. The Pew Research Center. https://pewrsr.ch/3agh0KC.
Halbfinger, D.M., Kershner, I., & Bergman, R. (2020, March 18). To track coronavirus, Israel moves to tap secret trove of cellphone data. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/world/middleeast/israel-coronavirus-cellphone-tracking.html.
Timberg, C., & Harwell, D. (2020, March 19). Government efforts to track virus through phone location data complicated by privacy concerns. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/19/privacy-coronavirus-phone-data.
A more detailed explanation of the methods and results may be found here.