Illustration of the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA: map with flag

In their own words: American opinions on COVID-19 contact-tracing apps and digital privacy

Since the fight against COVID-19 started and social distancing became the new norm, people have been relying more and more on technology. In the global effort to flatten the curve, technology has become our ally. However, it has also been used for nefarious purposes by cybercriminals, who took advantage of the challenging situation to steal data and spread malware. In the past year, digital privacy and security have become crucial topics not only for individuals but also for organizations and governments, as more and more countries are considering tech solutions to limit the spread of the virus.

Contact-tracing apps have been proposed as an effective way of slowing down the spread of the disease. They might help countries avoid further lockdowns if a significant percentage of the population is willing to use them and self-quarantine when necessary. While digital contact-tracing promises to be far more efficient than traditional manual tracing, the tracking technology is raising serious privacy concerns.

In our mission to protect people in the connected world, we focus on developing the tools that empower people to take ownership over their data and stay safe online. Beyond providing vital privacy and security tools, we also aim to inform people about their digital rights. Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on people’s digital lives has been a priority for us in the past months.

To find out how Americans perceive contact-tracing apps, we partnered with Opinion Matters to analyze their concerns related to digital privacy. Our detailed survey report shows that over 70% would not be willing to use a contact-tracing app, mainly because they do not trust the tracking technology. In what follows, we share with you some of the comments and opinions of survey respondents. Their words are not only a powerful expression of the skepticism surrounding such apps but also a testimony of the American Zeitgeist.

What do Americans think about COVID-19 contact-tracing apps?

“My freedom being collected, this won’t stand.”

No matter who proposes the apps for detecting peoples’ exposure to coronavirus – public-health authorities, state governments, or tech companies – many Americans perceive this as a threat to their fundamental right to freedom.

While state governments have been considering modern alternatives to traditional contact-tracing, Apple and Google partnered to create an exposure notification API that promises to be secure, private, and reliable. The efforts of the two tech giants have been met with skepticism by the general public, and only three states (Alabama, South Carolina, and North Dakota) agreed to use the API, according to a report published by Business Insider. It doesn’t seem to matter that the Bluetooth-based technology Apple and Google developed does not use location services for detecting proximity to someone who has been positively diagnosed. Nor that proximity identifiers obtained through Bluetooth beaconing are processed exclusively on the device. Americans seem to consider any tracking technology an attack on their freedom. It echoes a concern eloquently expressed by Edward Snowden:

The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called “liberty” and during the Internet Revolution is called “privacy”.

Snowden, Edward. Permanent Record. Macmillan, 2019, pp. 6-7.

“I don’t know enough about them.”

To emphasize the importance of privacy and security, Apple and Google provided details about the encryption of metadata and pointed out that their decentralized app changes a user’s rolling proximity identifier every 15 minutes. Furthermore, they changed the name of the Bluetooth specification from “Contact Tracing” to “Exposure Notification” in late April. But this name change had little impact on the way the general public perceives the tech. Some of the survey respondents commented that they would not use the apps simply because they do not understand them and are “uninformed.”

 “Whatever they collect WILL be leaked or hacked.”

Those who do know about technology know enough to realize that no app is 100% secure. Many fear that cybercriminals will find a way to hack the COVID-19 contact-tracing apps and leak sensitive data. It’s a legitimate fear – whenever there is a crisis, there will be people trying to take advantage of it. In addition to potential security flaws, cybersecurity experts point out that cybercriminals might flood app stores with fake malicious look-alike apps. Before installing an app for tracking your exposure to COVID-19, you should ask yourself some critical questions.

“I have many health problems, and I wouldn’t want all my medical information out there.”

Many Americans are concerned about the scope of the health data collected with the apps. They fear that other medical conditions affecting them might be recorded and, eventually, exposed to healthcare providers. One respondent worries that the “information can be used to deny health insurance.” The coronavirus pandemic has deepened concerns about the American healthcare system.

“It’s a hoax for police state surveillance.”

The fear that the use of contact-tracing apps might create a dangerous precedent, normalizing mass surveillance, amplifies the distrust Americans have in the government. From the small percentage of people willing to use technology, most of them trust big tech companies far more than governmental institutions.

In addition to the suspicions American citizens have about how authorities protect their best interests, fake news and conspiracy theories have been rapidly spreading during the pandemic and contributed to the growing disquiet. When asked to comment on the reluctance towards apps, some said: the apps are “a ruse for police state surveillance against whistleblowers and dissent,” “big brother will use this as a tool of oppression,” and “they would give a tyrannical government reason to force you into lockdown.”

“I don’t have COVID, so I don’t need to be traced.”

The global fight against COVID-19 brought a classical philosophical problem back into the public arena: the problem of collective action. According to a study conducted at the University of Oxford, contact-tracing apps can help contain the coronavirus outbreak only if more than 60% of people use them. Although this is a debated statistic, experts worldwide seem to agree that contact-tracing apps should be used by more than half of the population to achieve the goal of containing the outbreak.

South Korea has proved how effective such apps can be. The country has been using text messages and app alerts to notify people about encounters with infected individuals. By entering quarantine immediately, people in South Korea managed to control the outbreak and avoid a severe lockdown through this collective effort, without questioning the process imposed by authorities.

Epidemiologists and statisticians explained why it is vital that each person contributes with data to reach this common goal. Still, not many individuals seem to be willing to do this – they are the so-called free-riders. Some said, “I don’t have COVID, so I don’t need to be traced,” while others bluntly replied, “Just don’t care.”

“I don’t do apps.”

Even if more people would consider that the price of sharing their health data is worth paying in order to slow down the spread of the virus, not all people have this option. The number of smartphone users in the United States is estimated at approximately 255 million, according to Statista. Millions of Americans do not own smartphones, and even among smartphone owners, some do not use apps. Sadly, it is precisely the high-risk population that doesn’t benefit from the technology: the elderly.

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Whether one is for or against contact-tracing apps, one thing is sure: awareness about digital privacy issues is growing. Even before the pandemic, the focus on data privacy in the United States has been increasing, with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) coming into effect in January 2020. Along with the global shifts caused by the pandemic, this year might bring many more changes in our relationship to technology.

We believe these survey results should send a big signal to both app creators and the government. COVID contact tracing apps could fail before they launch if the developers don’t have more conversations with the public about how they plan to protect people’s privacy. Furthermore, most Americans currently trust Big Tech over the government; for the success of this important venture, the technology experts should lead the charge on COVID contact tracing apps.

Travis Witteveen, CEO of Avira

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