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Privacy Concerns Continue To Prevent Contact Tracing App Use

Two women using a COVID-19 contact tracking app.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Although contact tracing app efforts have grown, app adoption rates are low. 
  • Due to privacy concerns between family members, family tensions may arise from contact tracing apps.
  • 54% of the public believes that it is unacceptable for the government to track the location of those who have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Early on in the pandemic, companies and local governments across the U.S. raced to develop contact tracing apps to help track the spread of the virus. In May, Google and Apple even joined in a rare venture to develop a Bluetooth-based COVID-19 exposure notification for phones who opted into the program. More states continue to integrate these apps into their COVID-19 protocol, yet download and usage rates are both low.

Researchers at Virginia Tech (VT) found that low contract tracing app adoption rates may be partly due to privacy concerns.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers set out to study the tensions among families as they navigate this shared technology, and how these tensions can ultimately affect the adoption of contact tracing apps. Originally, the VT researchers examined smart home speakers (like Amazon's Echo) and privacy. When the pandemic hit, they wondered if these apps triggered similar privacy-related concerns among families. Turns out, they did.

Six in ten Americans believe if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone it would not make much of a difference in limiting the spread of the virus, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted in April.

Approximately 54% of the public surveyed also believe it is unacceptable for the government to track the location of those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Because people are worried about their privacy concerns, it becomes difficult to encourage people to use contact tracing apps. “The problem is that for contact tracing to work, you need 80% of the people to use it,” France Belanger, PhD, one of the lead researchers on the study and professor at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, tells Verywell.

What This Means For You

If you are concerned about contact tracing app privacy and anonymity, experts recommend reading about and staying informed of the app’s privacy policies. Contact tracing is a crucial part of curbing the virus. Check to see the kinds of contact tracing efforts your local government is undertaking.

Privacy Concerns

Contact tracing app adoption rates remain low in part because of mistrust for the technology being used and concerns about government involvement. According to Belanger, people may not be sure who they can trust. “Is the object of trust my smartphone? Or is it the app developer? Or the government?" Belanger says. "And so, if you have distrust in any one of them, then you have distrust for contact tracing."

Tensions then arise due to what Robert Crossler, PhD, associate professor of information systems at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, calls privacy calculus—a cost-benefit analysis between the risks of giving up personal information, as well as the benefits. “What you’re seeing is that the risk of friends having to all be on lockdown for two weeks outweighs the benefit of maybe stopping the virus,” Crossler tells Verywell. “Now my best friends are mad at me because they had to not leave their house for two weeks.” 

Realistically, nobody wants to be the person at fault for causing that amount of distress in people’s lives. However, contact tracing apps allow users to notify others of their positive COVID-19 status anonymously to avoid these fears. Crossler, an expert in information privacy and security research, states that the apps do not store or hold your data. “It really is anonymous," Crossler says. "They don’t keep track of who you are."

Within families, according to Belanger, tensions between parents and their children can be particularly high. When teenagers hang out with friends, “parents want them [their kids] to use contact tracing. But the teenagers don’t like to be tracked,” Belanger says. “If they don’t use it, their parents don’t let them go see their friends.”

The pandemic's added stressors only exacerbate these tensions. “People are really struggling," Katherine Allen, MA, PhD, professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech, tells Verywell. "There is a tremendous loss of income for people. Teenagers are used to leaving the home to go out with their friends. And so, parents are worried off the charts."

Transparency Might Be the Answer

Nearly all states are conducting COVID-19 contact tracing in some capacity. Certain states, like New York and Alabama, have particularly robust contract tracing programs to prevent the spread. 

Some cities, like New York City, have been transparent with the public about data storage and privacy. However, across the board, Crossler says there needs to be more transparency and leadership from government officials about people's data. 

Local officials across the country often haven't followed the COVID-19 safety protocols they're pushing for their communities to follow. For example, a little over a week ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom broke his own COVID-19 rules and attended a birthday party, which raised questions among his constituents. 

“He’s telling the entire society that they need to lock down and not go to these places," Crossler says. "And so when governmental officials, those who are trying to convince [people] to do this, aren't doing the same thing, it makes people think, well, why should I do it if they don't have to?”

Crossler calls on governmental leaders to lead by example by following COVID-19 precautions and downloading contact tracing apps. “That level of transparency and people seeing their leaders doing it, I think would go a long way,” Crossler says. If government officials led by example, perhaps families would be more encouraged to take part in contact tracing efforts as well.

How To Resolve Family Tensions About Contact Tracing

While there is no one fix for family tensions, Belanger suggests that families conduct more productive conversations about contact tracing. “We hope that families are going to talk about it more and resolve those differences,” Belanger says.

According to Belanger, some teenagers don’t know what contact tracing is. Therefore, talking about contact tracing apps and they're importance may help resolve some of these communication issues.  

Allen suggests that the government and companies take action to help the public better understand privacy and data. “Governments and companies could really help us if they demystified the process of collecting this information, what they’re doing with it, and had public campaigns that would help us understand,” Allen says. “We need more discernible information.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Virginia Tech Daily. Researchers study how privacy preferences, family tensions can deter use of contact tracing apps. Updated November 13, 2020.

  2. Pew Research Center. Most Americans don’t think cellphone tracking will help limit COVID-19, are divided on whether it’s acceptable. Updated April 16, 2020.