One in four respondents to a Threatpost reader poll said they were okay with sacrificing a portion of their personal privacy in exchange for some form of cellphone tracking that could – in theory – reduce coronavirus infection rates and save lives.
While the majority of Threatpost readers were privacy absolutists, the coronavirus pandemic had some respondents siding – in spirit – with controversial tracking of U.S. citizens via their cellphones.
When asked, “For coronavirus tracking, do you think public-health benefits outweigh privacy risks?” approximately 27 percent voted “Yes – Privacy and data-protection laws should not get in the way of saving lives.” Sixty-nine percent said, “No – A pandemic doesn’t give authorities the right to strip citizens of their privacy rights.”
The poll results come as a report in The Wall Street Journal details how U.S. officials are already using mobile ad location data to study how COVID-19 spreads. The report said U.S. authorizes are using mobile ad location data to create a portal, containing geolocation data across 500 U.S. cities, in an attempt to help plan their pandemic response.
The informal poll did reveal a slight change of heart when it came to privacy issues of others versus them. When asked, “If an app existed that told you who in your neighborhood was infected with the coronavirus, would you use it?” over a third (33.6 percent) of respondents said they would use it. Still, 58 percent said privacy implications were too daunting and they would not use the app.
Tracking Has Benefits, But Enough to Allay Privacy Concerns
In a series of questions Threatpost asked if tracking was enforced what are your privacy concerns.
The biggest benefits to coronavirus tracking include tracking person-to-person contact histories, which could potentially impose quarantines faster (28 percent), flattening the curve by isolating those who are positive (27 percent) and allowing free movement for those who are healthy (20 percent), expressed respondents.
When asked about their top privacy concerns with coronavirus tracking technology, 30 percent of respondents worried about the government’s ability to continue tracking people and collecting personal data after the pandemic ends.
One poll respondent argued he didn’t trust the government with personal data because it could create a “slippery slope to a social credit system.”
Twenty-seven percent of respondents worried about data being misused for reasons other than public health and safety. Other privacy concerns around tracking apps stem from the inability to opt out (22 percent) or the fact that tracking technology could make citizens turn on each other (16 percent). Two percent of respondents said they weren’t worried about privacy.
When asked what tracking data respondents deem “ok” to be collected, 75 percent said they were comfortable with some form of data collected. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they no data should ever be collected.
Of the respondents comfortable with data collection, 20 percent said they were “ok” with logging positive/negative coronavirus statuses. Nineteen percent said aggregated and anonymized real-time location-tracking data was permissible to track, while 10 percent said they were comfortable with presumptive positive status (showing symptoms but not tested) being collected.
Steve Durbin, managing director of the Information Security Forum, who also took the poll, told Threatpost that transparency is “the only solution” for easing privacy concerns.
“The data needs to be collected in an open fashion, with governments being highly explicit in explaining why it is being collected, how it will be used, how it will be protected and how it will subsequently be destroyed post pandemic,” he said. “Ultimately we are being asked to trust our governments in their ability to handle personal information and some have better track records than others when it comes to being trusted.”