Digital contact tracing needs consumer buy-in, but privacy fears could hamstring efforts

Dive Brief:

  • Consumers are split on whether they’d use a smartphone app to track potential contact with people infected with COVID-19 and let that app share their contacts with public health authorities as tech behemoths come closer to automating the laborious process of contact tracing ​to contain emerging clusters of the disease.
  • Half of Americans would download an app on their phone to tell them if they’re in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, but 47% wouldn’t, according to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only 45% would share their close contacts with public health authorities, while 53% would not.
  • People were twice as willing to download a contact tracing app if it’s managed by their local health department, state department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention than if it’s run by a private technology company.

Dive Insight:

Contact tracing is an important tool in public health’s arsenal to gain a holistic picture of the pandemic and help stop the virus’ spread, and the need is accelerated as some red states race move to restart their economies. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp plans to reopen some businesses on Friday, as he’s pushed back against guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus that has infected almost 850,000 Americans so far.

But consumer worries about health data privacy could handicap widespread smartphone tracing before it starts.

People are deeply concerned about the safety of their sensitive medical information, especially when its put in the hands of Silicon Valley giants like Google, which is facing an HHS OCR investigation after using millions of Americans’ medical data to develop new product lines last year. When KFF reminded consumers about the potential for hacking or misuse, willingness to adopt contact tracing apps plummeted to 28%.

Apple and Google announced a joint project earlier this month to allow Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps to work across both iOS and Android phones. The capability hinges on an application programming interface letting those apps tap into smartphone’s Bluetooth radios and monitor whether the user gets close to someone who is infected or later tests positive for COVID-19. The app alerts its user, who can then self-quarantine and get tested.

Both companies have maintained the project, which has a go-live date of mid-May with an update in June, protects privacy as much as possible. It won’t track user locations or collect identifying data for later use, and is a fully opt-in system. Google and Apple can shut down the broadcast system region-by-region when it’s no longer needed, and approved apps will be run by government health agencies.

However, these types of system raise alarms among civil liberties groups. Servers could identify people in other ways, like IP address, and there’s a risk of false positives in the system triggering erroneous alerts. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also developed a Bluetooth-based contact tracing system, which might sidestep the level of privacy fears as a Google-Apple effort.

Those concerns could hamstring widespread adoption of the tracing apps, which need about 60% of the population to use them to be beneficial, according to researchers at contact tracing project Covid-Watch.

“The mixed receptivity to using voluntary apps for contact tracing means that they can be an important tool to combat the pandemic but will not be a substitute for old-fashioned contact tracing,” KFF President and CEO Drew Altman said. Tracing involves thousands of workers interviewing infected people and tracking down anyone they’ve been in close physical contact with, seeing if they’re also sick.

Massachusetts is hiring and training 1,000 people to work on physical contact tracing, and on Wednesday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a contact tracing program in partnership with New Jersey and Connecticut. But the lack of a nationwide testing and tracking COVID-19 infrastructure is unlikely to change anytime soon, as the Trump administration has largely sloughed off responsibility to states and private partners.

KFF found willingness to adopt smartphone-based tracking split pretty much down party lines. Roughly a third of Republicans (35%) would download an app to tell them if they’re in contact with an infected person, and three in 10 (29%) would download an app that would help public health agencies track coronavirus spread. Democrats, by comparison, are much more willing to download an app for both uses, at 63% and 58%, respectively.

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