Electronic Contact Tracing


Figure showing surveillance policies and levels of support

Early in the pandemic, tech giants Apple and Google, in a rare collaboration, created an app that could tell you if you’d come in contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19. Individual states developed similar apps for their citizens.  The software allowed phones to exchange depersonalized codes via Bluetooth and store the codes of those the holder had been in contact with. If a local public health department entered a positive Covid-19 test into the system, the code of the user who tested positive was sent to other phones through the app.

Developers ensured the software protects privacy. No location or personal information was collected. Data was not stored on a single server. Yet many Americans still distrusted the security of these apps. Wyoming released their contact tracing app on July 1, but by November, only 1.1% of eligible adults had downloaded the app.

Baobao Zhang and team wanted to analyze why the uptake of contact tracing apps was so low, and understand what screening and contact tracing strategies Americans are comfortable with. They found that only 42% of Americans supported electronic contact tracing apps; 57% supported expanding more personal, phone call-based traditional contact tracing methods. As shown in the Figure above, the level of support for contact tracing apps was far below public checks for fevers or traditional contact tracing by phone.

In countries like Singapore, China and Taiwan, digital contact tracing launched early in the pandemic alongside other more aggressive measures. But strategies that worked in these countries didn’t work in the US, perhaps because many Americans believed it crossed freedom and individual liberty boundaries.

Electronic contact tracing apps and other more aggressive and vigilant methods of surveillance might have helped to slow the spread of Covid-19. But citizens did not commit to using them.

Databyte via Zhang, B., Kreps, S. E., McMurry, N., & MCain, R. M. (2020). Americans’ perceptions of privacy and surveillance in the Covid-19 Pandemic. Harvard Dataverse. doi:10.31219/osf.io/9wz3y