70% of Brits support COVID-19 tracking tech — as long as it’s voluntary

February 18, 2021

Brits don't mind contact tracing, as long as they know it's happening. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

A majority of U.K. adults reported that they are willing to have their privacy slightly compromised through mobile apps used for tracking and tracing community spread of COVID-19 and via “immunity passports,” according to an ongoing international study that spans nine countries, though signups for a tracking app launched by the British government in September have lagged.

In a paper published in PLOS One on Jan. 22, the majority of British people who were surveyed in the spring of 2020, early on in the coronavirus pandemic, said that they supported the idea of tracking-based policies implemented by the U.K. government to combat the coronavirus, particularly if the measures were temporary and came with opt-out clauses. This stands in contrast to people’s commonly professed concern for their privacy.

Participants also largely supported the idea of “immunity passports,” which at the time referred to people who carried antibodies for COVID-19, implying that they were potentially immune to the virus and therefore unable to spread it to other people. The original idea for the passports would grant privileges to those who qualified, such as exemption from social-distancing measures.

The paper is one of three published so far representing a global collaborative study done in nine countries with about 15,000 participants, Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol and the lead author, told The Academic Times. The other published papers have focused on Australia and Taiwan

The project examines the public’s acceptance of privacy-encroaching tracking policies that permit health agencies to monitor people’s contact with each other and warn of positive virus infections.

In September 2020, the U.K. government released the National Health Service COVID-19 decentralized tracking app to the public. Though support was strong for the idea, by late October, only half as many people had downloaded the app as needed to effectively halt the community spread of the virus.

“The slow acceptance and usage of the app may stem from a combination of privacy concerns and pragmatic difficulties: People often intend to do something when asked, but they will only actually do it if it is made very easy and they are repeatedly reminded of it,” Lewandowsky said. “Those issues should be addressed by public policy as the effectiveness of tracking relies on the willingness of the population to compromise their privacy.”

There are currently several COVID-related tracking apps for smartphones being used in the U.K., Germany, Australia and Singapore. All the apps keep track of a person’s contacts with others, and when someone is infected, everyone they encountered during the previous critical time period are identified and alerted via text message.

But the apps differ in where and how they store contact information — some use central storage on a government server, and others keep all information local and communicate to contacts without involving health authorities or the government.

The NHS app in the U.K. is decentralized and uses an Apple/Google Bluetooth-based approach. The research team surveyed public opinion on these different types of tracking apps in March and April 2020, before the launch of the U.K. app. 

A sample of 3,500 adults in the U.K. were presented with one of multiple hypothetical scenarios that described a tracking app, accompanied by different policy options. They were also tested on their worldviews, trust in government and their risk perception relating to COVID-19.

One group of participants in the first survey were given a mild hypothetical scenario where they could opt-in voluntarily to be tracked and could choose whether or not to download the app, while another group read a more severe scenario that said, “All mobile users were mandated to download the app and the government could issue quarantine orders and use the tracking data to locate and fine people who were violating those orders.”

The second survey included a third Bluetooth scenario in which phones would exchange messages anonymously whenever they were in proximity, so as to alert people who may have been infected without the government knowing their identity information. 

Overall, acceptance of tracking technologies was strong among U.K. respondents, with a baseline of about 70% for the mild and Bluetooth scenarios, and over 60% for the severe scenario. After introducing new clauses, such as the fact that all data would be deleted after two weeks, acceptance levels of both scenarios increased to more than 75%. Support levels rose further, to over 85%, when participants were told a time limit and an opt-out clause would be provided.

“People are relatively unconcerned about where the data are stored, but they do care about how long the data will be stored for,” the authors said in the paper. “Any policy should therefore be accompanied by a clear sunset clause, and that sunset clause should be highlighted in communications with the public.”

The U.K. researchers also found that more than 60% of participants in the second survey were interested in “immunity passports.” But the passport idea was not well supported by scholars, with some arguing that dividing society into those who are immune and those who are not could have dystopian consequences, according to the paper.

The general idea is still being considered, but now in the context of keeping track of who has been vaccinated and who has not. Only about 20% of people strongly opposed the original idea, mostly considering the passports to be unfair.

The amount of support people showed for the tracking app and passport concept was quite high in the U.K., but not too different from results in other countries, according to Lewandowsky. So far, the study has been run with residents of the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Taiwan. 

About 2,000 U.S. adults were surveyed in April 2020, and the mild scenario was initially accepted by 46% of participants, and the severe scenario was accepted by 39.5%. After follow-up questions and clarifications, such as the stipulation that the government would be required to delete the data and cease tracking after six months, acceptance of both scenarios rose to about 50%. 

The results could be tied to how much people trust their governments in different countries. According to the research team’s data, Taiwan is a very high-trust country, while the U.K. and the U.S. have low levels of trust in their elected leaders. People likely make decisions about the trade-off between their personal privacy and public health differently based on where they live.

The survey tested for predictors of acceptance of the tracking app and passport, and found that people in the U.K. who trusted the government to safeguard their privacy were considerably more likely to accept the policies than people who distrusted the government. Increasing age was associated with reduced acceptance of a policy, and men were less accepting than women overall. People with a more conservative or libertarian orientation were also slightly less likely to accept any of the policies.

“As a follow-up, it would be beneficial to know whether people have relaxed their privacy attitudes as an exception due to the emergency situation, or if our findings show a wider acceptance of privacy-encroaching technologies, for example, continuous monitoring of your power consumption at home or tracking of location by law enforcement authorities,” Lewandowsky said. 

The study, “Public acceptance of privacy-encroaching policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom,” was published Jan. 22 in PLOS One. Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol was the lead author. Muhsin Yesilada, of the University of Bristol; and Simon Dennis, Andrew Perfors, Yoshihisa Kashima, Joshua White, Paul Garrett and Daniel Little, all of the University of Melbourne, served as co-authors.

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