Britons Warm to Data-Sharing to Fight COVID-19

Willingness to share mobile phone data has risen noticeably during the crisis, but clear privacy principles are needed to drive usage of the government’s contact-tracing app.


As the UK government prepares to roll out a mobile app designed to help contain the coronavirus and reopen the economy, the big question facing the authorities is whether the public will agree to download and use it. New research indicates public opinion has grown significantly more favourable to the use of such tools since the pandemic erupted, according to a survey from the Oliver Wyman Forum.

Forty-three percent of respondents said they would be willing to share their individual mobile phone location data to help bring the disease under control, according to the survey, which was conducted from May 2 to May 4. That was nearly a third greater than the 33 percent who said they would be willing to share such data in a similar survey conducted in late March, but short of the 60 percent threshold experts say is required.



“The UK has data protection rules but people must have trust and confidence in the way personal data is used to respond to the COVID-19 crisis,” says Simon McDougall, executive director for technology and innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK authority that oversees data privacy issues. “We’ve spoken about the need for a high level of transparency and governance, and we also recognise the vital role that data can play in tracking the pandemic and the need to act urgently.”

The UK’s National Health Service has developed an app that uses Bluetooth signals to determine when a smart phone carrier comes in close contact with others. If a user develops COVID-19 symptoms, they can report them on the app, which anonymously uploads its contact information to the NHS. The health service then sends a warning and advice to contacts assessed to be at risk. The app was launched on a trial basis on the Isle of Wight on May 5, and government officials say they plan to roll it out across England in coming weeks.

Countries including South Korea and Singapore have used apps as part of their containment strategies, and similar tools are being deployed or developed from Australia to Germany. The UK strategy involves ramping up testing to reveal the scope and spread of infection, and contact tracing using both apps and human investigators. The approach is intended to foster a resumption of economic and social activity, including the gradual reopening of schools from the start of June.

But the NHS app has aroused privacy worries because it sends anonymised user information to a central database for analysis, which health officials say will help them identify and respond to outbreaks of infections. Newspapers have reported that in response to those concerns, the NHS has begun working on alternative apps employing a decentralised approach that keeps contact information on users’ handsets.

The debate is front of mind for many Britons. Fully 83 percent of survey respondents said they were aware or very aware of contact tracing as a means of managing the pandemic. A majority of 53 percent said they would prefer the government adopt a digital tracking approach using a mobile app, compared with 37 percent who preferred manual tracking by health investigators.

In an encouraging sign for the government’s plans, respondents expressed much more trust in the NHS to provide apps than big technology companies. Forty-eight percent said they would use a digital app without reservations if it came from a health provider like the NHS, and another 39 percent said yes with reservations. Only 13 percent said they would use an app from a big tech firm without reservations while 43 percent said yes with reservations.



Just over one in five respondents said they were concerned that an NHS app would share data with others or not provide enough transparency about data usage, compared with roughly one in two who expressed similar discomfort about a big tech app.

In terms of what people are looking to get from an app, 53 percent said they would download one if it provided notifications of exposure, and 50 percent said they would do so to support government tracking of the spread of the disease. Support dropped to 41 percent if the app helped allow people go back to work, and 35 percent if it monitored social distancing. Some 18 percent said they had already downloaded an app of some kind, while 16 percent said they did not want to use such an app and eight percent said their phone did not allow downloads.

Those numbers suggest the UK still has some ways to go to persuade the public to share information to contain the virus. Academics and health officials say at least 60 percent of the population needs to download a contact-tracing app for the method to be fully effective.

Yet the survey points to a significant shift of opinion in just under six weeks’ time. On March 23, when our first survey was being conducted, Prime Minister Boris Johnson became one of the last European leaders to issue a stay-at-home order and the country’s death toll from the virus stood at 335. Since then the number of cases has surged to nearly a quarter of a million, and fatalities exceed 34,000, second only to the United States. Johnson himself caught COVID-19 and spent a week in a hospital, including three days in intensive care, in early April.

Privacy and clear limits on data use are the biggest factors that would encourage greater use of apps, the survey found. Some 66 percent of respondents said they would be more willing or a lot more willing to share data with an app if it adopted clear privacy principles, and 62 percent said they would do so if there were legislation limiting the use of data. The NHS app currently on trial stores user data for only 28 days.

The survey also found willingness to share biometric data in public settings increased to 49 percent from 37 percent in March. China has used mass temperature scans in train stations and other public areas as part of its containment efforts. And 36 percent of respondents expressed willingness to share airline travel data to help contain the spread of the disease, up from 28 percent in March.

The trend is encouraging but not yet sufficient. For contact tracing to become an effective tool in combatting the pandemic, clear policy guidelines are needed to encourage the public to enlist in the government’s containment strategy by sharing their data.