Many American adults are reluctant to see their contact tracing information used to fight COVID-19


Throughout the pandemic, health departments and private businesses have touted the potential of contact tracing apps to help control the spread of COVID-19.

But more than a year later, many of these initiatives have failed to gain traction – and new research suggests that public interest (or lack thereof) may have played a role.

The study, published this week in JAMA network open, found that approval among American adults was generally low for the use of digital consumer data for activities such as case identification, digital contact tracing, policy-making and enforcement. quarantine.

“Understanding consumer perspectives on digital privacy is essential as the world faces the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to prepare for future pandemics,” the researchers wrote.


For the study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania obtained responses from 3,547 American adults who were presented with nine different scenarios in which digital data could be used to control COVID-19.

None of the scenarios received majority support.

In other words, the majority of respondents were either neutral or disapproved of the nine scenarios in which consumer data could be exploited.

The highest level of approval was for using smartphones for contact tracing, at 43%.

The scenarios with the lowest approval levels were:

  • “Social media used to detect early signs of COVID-19 and share them with public health officials to define policies”
  • “Mobile phone data used to identify people at high risk of COVID-19 and limit their movements”
  • Mandatory participation in the Google and Apple contact tracing program.

Interestingly, a large percentage of respondents provided neutral responses, suggesting that they might be persuaded by the adoption of policies by employers or educational institutions.

Additionally, the study found that personal experience with COVID-19 was not associated with greater support for digital tools.

Instead, political ideology was the biggest contributor to the variation. Conservative people were less supportive than moderate or liberal people.

This doesn’t necessarily align with other earlier views on digital privacy, the researchers observed.

“For example, conservative individuals have been more favorable than liberal individuals in requiring Apple to make information available to law enforcement agencies to solve crimes and allow government oversight to control compliance with government programs, ”they noted.

“Our results related to digital public health privacy may have been associated with the extent to which COVID-19 became a partisan issue during the 2020 election season,” they said.

Respondents of color also expressed greater support for using digital data to fight the pandemic than white respondents.

“Our results suggest that many American adult consumers may be reluctant to give up digital privacy even when faced with the substantial health and economic damage associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the scientists wrote.

“These concerns are incompatible with the almost ubiquitous sharing of digital data in business environments, arguably offering fewer individual or social benefits. However, most business data sharing occurs not because consumers share voluntarily, but because it has become difficult to avoid sharing. They added.


Concerns about the intersections of data privacy with the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to arise again in the context of vaccine certification.

Projects are gaining momentum all over the world, with IT heavyweights relying on projects and numerous conferences (including that of HIMSS, IT health news‘parent company) requiring proof of vaccination to attend.

Yet other state governments have already started to back down, leaving an open question as to how businesses and the general public will move forward.


“Widespread adoption may require intensive advertising, trusted messengers, and behavioral counseling to encourage adoption,” the study reads. “Without these efforts, our data suggests that most of the population will not seek out these programs and accept them.”

Kat Jercich is Editor-in-Chief of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a publication of HIMSS Media.


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