Contact tracing tech sparks privacy concerns, but most consumers and IT experts still support their use

In a recent survey, 67% of consumers and 91% of IT professionals said they'd support a nationwide rollout of contact-tracing apps or other technologies.
By Dave Muoio
03:15 pm
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A new survey conducted among consumers and IT professionals by data security company SecureAge Technology suggests that the clear majority of these groups believe COVID-19 contact-tracing technologies put individuals' personally identifiable information at risk. Despite this, both groups generally believed that these types of tools could help cut down the impact of the disease, and would support a nationwide rollout of the technology in spite of privacy concerns.

Conducted between July 20 and August 17, the survey polled roughly 580 U.S. consumers and 300 IT professionals on how they viewed the use of contact-tracing apps and similar technologies. The security firm's areas of interest included awareness of the tools, perceptions of effectiveness, concerns regarding privacy, attitudes toward various implementations and international responses to the virus.

Most consumers (81%) and nearly all IT professionals (95%) told the firm that they had heard of these technologies, while the professionals more often believed that the tools would be somewhat or very effective in reducing COVID-19 spread (93% versus 70%). More than 90% of both groups said that they were at least a little bit concerned about the technology's collection of personal data, although experts viewed the risk as more severe.

Respondents were fairly supportive of a hypothetical wide-scale rollout of contact-tracing technology. Two-thirds of consumers said they'd be somewhat or very likely to back the move, while 91% of professionals threw their weight behind the move.

The scales were tipped a bit when the source of these tools was specified. If an app or alert system came from a big tech company like Google, Facebook or Apple, consumer and professional confidence shifted to 62% and 88%, respectively. In a rollout with formal government oversight and data collection protocols, 65% of consumers said they'd feel somewhat or very safe, compared to 91% of IT professionals. The latter group was also more confident in the U.S. government's ability to maintain privacy and protect personal data, although both groups most often said that the U.S. has been the most successful country in regard to tech-driven COVID efforts.

WHY IT MATTERS

The effectiveness of tech-based contact-tracing tools is tied to their adoption within a substantial portion of the general population, experts have warned. Issues like privacy have frequently been highlighted as impediments to widespread participation, but the SecureAge survey suggests that such concerns may not be a deal-breaker for many who want to take action against the pandemic.

“Understandably, consumers are sending mixed messages. They are aware of the potential of contact tracing apps yet have valid fears toward downloading them," Jerry Ray, COO of SecureAge, said in a statement accompanying the survey. "While they also show confidence in the ability of 'Big Tech' to help create effective digital solutions, they also favor formal government oversight of any data collection and storage that might take place. A 'Big Tech' led and government supervised approach has higher support among IT professionals who have greater knowledge of the government’s data safeguard standards – we hope this vote of confidence can give consumers greater confidence in contact tracing technology."

THE LARGER TREND

A big tech-government collaboration on these tools is at the heart of Apple and Google's Bluetooth Exposure Notifications system. The first government app built on the API went live in Virginia at the beginning of August, and since then the companies have reworked the system so that public health authorities can have an app or reporting framework automatically generated for them with relatively minor input. As of September 1, Apple and Google said that 25 U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia have explored the technology for use among their populations.

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