Data-Sharing in the Time of Coronavirus

Pandemic shines light on privacy and attitudes toward sharing personal health information for the public good.


The fight against COVID-19 raises fundamental questions about personal data and privacy. What started off with traditional health information collection and tracing contacts of infected persons to mitigate the spread of the disease quickly evolved into digital location tracking in many countries. Yet even as countries from East to West have taken very different approaches to using personal data to combat the pandemic, individual data-sharing preferences are strikingly common across countries.

According to a six-nation survey conducted by the OIiver Wyman Forum, most people support sharing personal health data if it’s aimed at protecting their health and that of the wider public. They are much less interested in doing so to obtain cheaper or more convenient health care, or other goods and services. They also are less willing to share non-health information, such as mobile phone location or financial transaction data, even if it’s used to track potential contact with infected persons.

To fight the coronavirus, most people are comfortable sharing their health data with medical providers and public health authorities, but they are reluctant to provide it to other government officials, employers or app developers.

The Oliver Wyman Forum surveyed roughly 3,600 people across six countries – the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Singapore – and found opinions were broadly aligned on several key data issues. Large majorities of respondents in all countries, including an overwhelming 90 percent of Germans, would want their doctor to be notified if they tested positive for the coronavirus, while smaller majorities would want public health authorities to be told. Respondents would be much less comfortable sharing a positive test result with either federal or local government officials, though. And Singapore was the only country where a majority would share a positive result with their employer or school.

The survey also revealed a reluctance to share information with apps. American, British and German respondents were the least likely to say they would be comfortable sharing a positive coronavirus test with an app that disclosed the location but not identity of infected persons. Even in Singapore, where such apps are being used as part of containment efforts, support for sharing a positive test result was only 41 percent.

Asked separately whether they would be comfortable sharing the result of a coronavirus test, positive or negative, with an app, a majority of respondents in all countries said they would be if access to that information was restricted to health providers and relevant authorities. Fewer than 20 percent in every country said they would be willing to share either their identity or location with a publicly available app.

The survey also reveals that people are hungry for information about the pandemic, and cases of infection near them, even if they have concerns about sharing their own data. Large majorities in all countries said they would want to be notified if someone in their immediate neighborhood tested positive, ranging from 69 percent in Germany to 82 percent in Singapore. Sizable majorities would also want to know if someone at their place of employment or school tested positive.

As for broader data on health status, such as information from doctor visits, a majority of respondents in all countries would be comfortable sharing that for the purpose of public health monitoring. But other forms of data sharing received much less support. The highest was for location data from mobile telephones. Half of Singaporeans and 47 percent of Spaniards would be comfortable sharing that information to trace potential contact with infected persons, but other countries produced much lower percentages. And fewer than one respondent in four in every country was comfortable sharing financial transaction data to trace potential contact with infected persons.

China and South Korea, which have sharply reduced the rate of infection, have used such mobile location tracking in their containment efforts. Mobile phone companies in Germany, Italy and Austria are sharing anonymized mobile location data with authorities and app developers to see if people are complying with social distancing measures, and US officials have held talks with technology companies about using such location data to monitor social distancing as well as the spread of the disease.

Economic and Health Concerns Are Widespread

It’s too early to tell if the crisis will change opinions about data-sharing, but one thing is clear: worry is pervasive. The overwhelming majority of respondents were concerned or extremely concerned about the health risks that the pandemic poses to their family or community, as well as the economic impact of the crisis. Those levels of concern were slightly greater than fears about their own personal health.

Thirteen percent of Spanish respondents said they had lost their job because of the pandemic, compared with 10 percent of Americans, 7 percent of the British and 4 percent of Germans. Greater numbers said they have had their pay or hours cut, ranging from 12 percent in the US and UK to 16 percent in Singapore. That economic toll seems almost certain to rise. Initial claims for US unemployment insurance surged by a record of more than 3 million in the week ended March 21, the first period to reflect widespread shutdowns because of the pandemic.

The online survey, conducted from March 21 to March 27, sampled the opinions of 1,000 Americans and a little over 500 people each in the UK, Germany, Spain, Australia and Singapore, balanced by age and gender to reflect the wider population.