The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting people and governments around the world to reconsider the balance between privacy rights and sharing personal data for the public good. Spain may offer an example of how preferences can shift, to judge by public opinion and a sudden profusion of new apps designed to track and contain the virus.
A six-nation survey by the Oliver Wyman Forum found that Spanish people were among the most willing to share their mobile phone location data to track potential contact with people infected with the virus. Only Singapore, which has been using such tools for weeks already, exhibited greater support. Respondents in the US, UK, Germany, and Australia were much less comfortable with the idea.
The support for data-sharing suggests that the steep toll the disease has taken on Spain may be shifting opinion. Consider that in January 2019, a 26-nation survey conducted for the World Economic Forum found that Spaniards, along with respondents from Chile and Mexico, were the least likely to trust a variety of organizations with their personal data.
The coronavirus has hit Spain harder than Italy on a per capita basis. The country had more than 170,000 cases of COVID-19 as of April 14, and 18,000 deaths. Our survey, taken in late March as the toll was rising rapidly, found that Spaniards were among the most willing to have data collected during the COVID-19 crisis be re-used later if it could improve their healthcare or prevent or lessen a future pandemic.
The authorities are capitalizing on this openness to data-sharing by responding with new tools to monitor and contain the virus. In late March the national government authorized the Health Ministry to develop an app to help manage the crisis. The tool, which asks users to provide their name, birth date, and government ID number, is designed to help people assess their own symptoms and likelihood of infection. Importantly, it will allow for health authorities to access mobile location data, with users’ permission, to provide information tailored to their area.
Authorities in the Basque Country and in Catalonia, which control healthcare policy in their areas, have launched similar apps. Data from the Catalan device, called StopCovid-19, is used to publish a public map showing the density of cases by locality across the region.
The national government went a step further in April by launching a new data-tracking tool called DataCOVID. It draws on location data of more than 40 million mobile phones from the country’s three main mobile operators to monitor the movement of people around the country and compliance with lockdown measures. The tool does not require the consent of individuals, but it uses aggregated and anonymized mobile data and, therefore, complies with Spanish and European privacy rules including the General Data Protection Regulation, officials say.
The involvement of health authorities and regional governments is critical in a country that has devolved considerable political power to the Basque and Catalan territories, which have their own languages and cultural traditions. In our survey, Spanish respondents were among the least willing to share mobile location data with the national government, but the most willing to do so with health providers like hospitals.
The authorities should keep those sensitivities in mind. Countries like China have used more-invasive data tools in their containment efforts, and similar methods could be useful to control the virus in Spain and facilitate a reopening of the society and economy. Such tools will require the support of the population to be truly effective.