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Contact-tracing apps and consumer privacy

Mobile Marketing - Member Content

The AdColony team looks at the privacy issues raised by contact-tracing apps, and US consumers' attitudes towards them.

The persistent global spread of COVID-19 has created an immediate need for tracking the virus’ spread. Governments, health authorities, and tech companies worldwide are currently using technology and data collection to help identity, track, and contain the virus, as well as to anticipate future outbreaks. Contract-tracing apps are starting to pop up in some countries, but the collection of personal information has users raising some concerns.

Awareness of contact-tracing apps
Contact-tracing apps alert people that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Those people could then get tested and self-isolate.  Back in April, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to develop contact-tracing technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus. Using Bluetooth technology, smartphone users will be able to opt-in to be informed if they have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. 

More than a month after this announcement from two of the biggest tech giants, many Americans were still not very informed on what contact-tracing apps are. AdColony’s survey revealed that 70 per cent of respondents were aware of them but only 31 per cent understood what they do and how they work. Furthermore, 30 per cent of respondents were not aware of contract tracing apps.

How likely are US adults to install a contact-tracing app on their phones?
Even as the public learns more about contact-tracing technology, it has been a challenge to get them to use the apps. Research from Oxford University states that 60 per cent of a country’s population would have to download a tracing app in order for it to be effective. In May, Iceland had achieved the largest penetration of any virus-tracking app, with 38 per cent of its 364,000 inhabitants installing it. Singapore, which has been at the forefront of the development of this technology, has seen around 2.1m downloads, approximately 37 per cent of the country’s population. Iceland and Singapore’s download rates are still well below the recommended 60 per cent threshold. 

Most states in the US have been slow or outright resistant to Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API. Only four states – Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Virginia – have said they would use the software to develop their tracing apps. So far, there has been no indication of an effort to introduce the technology at a federal level. Even if states use the API, will people in the US install a tracing app on their mobile devices? More than half of respondents (52 per cent) said they were likely to download a contract-tracing app, while 26 per cent said it was unlikely.

Privacy and doubts on effectiveness are the top concerns
Getting people to download a contact-tracing app is proving to be a hard sell for a number of reasons, with privacy being the main issue. According to survey results, 61 per cent of respondents cited privacy concerns as a reason to not install an app. 44 per cent of respondents are unsure if the technology would work well. People are also concerned it would make them anxious or that it will drain their phone’s battery.

Although consumers are wary of consenting to be tracked by government authorities, they are willing to divulge personal data if they believe it will help keep them safe and secure. More health and location data will be available to marketers, but they need to be cautious about how they will use it. Anonymized data sets could help them better understand consumer attitudes by region and use their findings to inform long term planning. Marketers just need to continue being mindful of compliance because GDPR and CCPA still apply, even during a pandemic.