Study: Americans skeptical of COVID-19 contact tracing apps

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Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, technologists and health officials have turned to technology — including smartphone contact tracing apps — to stem the spread of the virus. But contact-tracing apps, which require a critical mass of adopters to be effective, face serious hurdles in the United States, researchers at Cornell have found.

In “Americans’ Perceptions of Privacy and Surveillance in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published Dec. 23 in PLOS One, Baobao Zhang, Klarman Postdoctoral Fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences, and Sarah Kreps, John L. Wetherill Professor of Government , report that Americans continue to be deeply skeptical of contact tracing technology and reluctant to adopt other preventative measures.

However, they also found that Americans’ support for digital contact tracing tends to increase with stronger privacy protections.

“While digital contact tracing apps are a promising tool to limit the spread of COVID-19, we found that public perceptions of digital contact tracing are a barrier to widespread adoption,” Zhang and Kreps wrote. . “Therefore, governments looking to deploy digital contact tracing must invest not only in the app itself, but also in a significant public education campaign to encourage adoption.”

Contact tracing apps should not be treated as a standalone solution to the pandemic, they wrote. Instead, apps should be part of a broader public health strategy that takes into account the needs and concerns of diverse populations, such as the elderly and homeless, who have a lower percentage of access to smartphones, and black Americans, who have particular concerns about surveillance. .

Zhang and Kreps surveyed 2,000 Americans, asking them to support various COVID-19 surveillance measures, both app-based and traditional. The survey also collected information on respondents’ demographics, political views and personal experience with COVID-19.

Fewer respondents, 42%, want the government to encourage the universal use of contact tracing apps, compared to other monitoring measures such as enforcing temperature checks (62%), expanding traditional contact tracing (57%), implementing centralized quarantine (49%), deploying monitoring of electronic devices (44%) or implementing immunity passes (44%).

“I wasn’t totally surprised by the results, given that there’s a growing distrust of new technologies in the United States,” said Zhang, who studies trust and technology governance. digital and artificial intelligence.

But the study also found that more people (44%) were willing to use contact-tracing apps that offer decentralized data storage on phones, rather than centralized storage (39%). Decentralized data storage preserves a higher degree of privacy, Zhang and Kreps wrote, while centralized storage is more useful to public health authorities trying to understand how the virus is spreading.

The researchers also found that people retain misinformed beliefs about contact tracing technology even after reading about how the app works, but the misinformed beliefs were not associated with opposition to downloading and browsing. use of apps.

Additionally, respondents who had been sick themselves or had a sick family member were more likely to support contact tracing apps and expanded surveillance in general. And despite partisan differences over a range of surveillance measures, support for the government encouraging digital contact tracing proved indistinguishable between Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%), although more Republicans opposed to politics (39%) compared to Democrats. (27%).

Zhang and Kreps said the study applies to current policy debates about digital contact tracing, and their research was cited in a U.S. Senate report in July. As of December 14, contact-tracing apps are operating in 19 US states and in Washington, DC, Guam and Puerto Rico. Almost all of these apps use the Apple/Google Exposure Notification system, which does not track users’ locations and stores data locally on users’ phones, Zhang said.

Political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, should encourage the use of secure and privacy-preserving contact-tracing apps, Zhang said, while taking public concerns about new technologies seriously when implementing new technological solutions.

“Although the app can effectively reduce transmission at all levels of adoption, epidemiological modeling suggests that an app could stop the pandemic if the app were adopted by 60% of the population,” Zhang and Kreps wrote. . “Indeed, the adoption of smartphone contact tracing may be an example of conditional cooperation, in which individuals are only willing to participate if they perceive that others will also participate.”

The corresponding author of the study was Nina McMurry from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Berlin, Germany.

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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