It’s one of the conundrums of this anxiety-ridden year: We live in a technology-driven society in which many of us routinely share all sorts of information with social media platforms, banks, retailers, and dating and training apps. Yet when it comes to sharing information to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed three-quarters of a million lives globally, many people shun the idea. Resolving those contradictions could go a long way toward limiting the virus’ toll and enabling a sustainable reopening of economies around the world.
Countless data breaches and worries about government intrusion help feed concerns about privacy. Yet consider what people are actually doing. In a recent seven-nation survey conducted by the Oliver Wyman Forum, more than half of respondents said they allow location tracking on some or most mobile apps they use. Singaporeans were the most willing to allow such tracking, but even in countries like the United States and Australia, where only slight majorities allowed tracking, only about a third said they refuse tracking on most apps.
The coronavirus puts location tracking in a new context. Wanting to know about possible exposure to the virus and to help contain its spread are strong arguments in favor of sharing location data. So far, most people don’t seem persuaded by that argument. In our survey, there wasn’t a majority in favor of sharing location data in any of the seven countries. Yet support for sharing increased in three countries – the UK, Germany, and Australia – in June compared with March, when we first asked the question. The latter two have made contact-tracing apps with privacy protections a key part of their containment strategy.
Germany’s app is based on technology that keeps data on users’ mobile phones rather than centralizing it. Australia’s parliament passed a law in May ensuring the privacy of app users. Such strategies can encourage public participation. Our survey found sizable pluralities in every country – from 39 percent in the US to 47 percent in Singapore – would be more willing to share information with a coronavirus app if there was legislation limiting data use. It also found similar levels of willingness if there were technical measures in place to preserve as much privacy as possible, or if clear principles were adopted to ensure information was kept private and secure.
Data-sharing is a complex issue, but if governments and health authorities tackle privacy concerns in a direct and transparent way, it’s possible to enlist a good part of the population in the fight to contain the pandemic.