European countries continue to roll out Covid-19 tracking apps. It's argued that, if used effectively, they could slow down the spread of coronavirus. But how ready are we to share our data for the benefit of public health?
People generally consider their privacy to be important and worth protecting. However, when the benefits of information disclosure seem to outweigh the potential risks, many of us happily give up on our privacy concerns. We already share our location in return for navigation instructions, and let Spotify, for example, create playlists recommended just for the user. This is also true in the financial domain. We easily tell our bank how much we earn and have in savings for the best mortgage advice, but are hesitant to do so for simple money management tools.
Would you be willing to install a corona tracking app? 53% of German smartphone users over 16 (some 28 million people) reported they would. Two months after the launch of the Corona-Warn-App, 16.6 million Germans have downloaded it - a lot fewer than the number who said they would. So what can explain the apparent gap between people’s intentions and behaviours?
How much privacy do we give up in the Covid-19 apps?
Most of the European coronavirus apps use Bluetooth to trace people with whom an infected person has been in close contact, not people’s location. The German Corona-Warn-App, for example, exchanges anonymised and randomly generated Bluetooth-ID numbers with nearby phones. Once a user reports coronavirus-related symptoms or a positive test, the app sends notifications to those phones. If the app were to be actively used by enough people, it could reduce the coronavirus’ reproduction number from three (during outbreaks) to below one. So what are we waiting for?
1 Engagement is key: For the app to have an impact, people need to do more than just downloading it. Users need to turn on Bluetooth and take their phones everywhere they go. They also need to actively and honestly report symptoms or a positive test. At the same time, users have to give consent for the exchange of data between their phones and those around them. This step may already be more challenging than it sounds.
2 Trust and transparency: People need to trust who collects and monitors the data and feel they are in control of their data (who benefits from it?). The organisation must be transparent about how the data is being handled. Interestingly, the extent to which people understand how organisations handle their data depends on how strongly data privacy is regulated in a country. In Belgium and Germany, less than 20% have a good comprehension of what companies do with their data, compared with more than 45% in China.
3 Benefit immediacy: People find it difficult to weigh the potential risks of data sharing against the expected benefits for society. The sooner we experience the present benefits, the more we perceive the risk of data sharing to be worth it. Since the benefits of data sharing via the Covid-19 app are only visible when the spread of coronavirus slows down, the bias for immediate benefits could be an additional barrier for people to start using the app.
Doing it for them
Clearly, there are many factors which influence whether coronavirus apps will be adopted. But if we are open to trying a new app, we may only need one more thing to change intentions into behaviour: the power of others. While we are used to weighing privacy risks against the benefits for ourselves (e.g. with financial apps), as far as coronavirus apps are concerned, the benefits lie in the health of the people around us – friends, family, neighbours, and so on. Emphasising the benefits for society and the social norm to care about others could stimulate people to start using the app. After all, if there is one example that shows individuals are prepared to sacrifice a little bit of themselves for the health of others, it’s the global lockdowns – and let’s hope we can prevent more in the future.
This piece is based on an article originally published on think.ing.com.