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Only half of citizens would accept Covid monitoring apps
Using mobile phone data to track people’s movements and possible exposure to the coronavirus would be acceptable for around half of the population of Flanders, according to a survey published this week. The results also show a large majority worried about abuse of their data after the crisis is over.
“An app is not out of the question, according to these results, but it’s clear that location data, and in particular precise GPS data, are sensitive,” explained researcher Marijn Martens of Ghent University. “Less accurate data, such as a mobile phone signal, is considered acceptable more often. It will be crucial for app developers to explain clearly which data are and are not being collected.”
Mobile phone tracking data is one element currently being discussed in plans for lifting restrictions imposed to control the spread of the corona virus. The idea is that everyone would be required to install an app on their phones that would then track their movements.
These apps may also use a phone’s Bluetooth function to record proximity to other users, which would allow detailed contact tracing in cases of infection.
A survey testing attitudes to this approach was carried out by the Data & Society Knowledge Centre, a collaboration between university research groups in Brussels, Leuven and Ghent. Some 1,708 people completed the survey, which was carried out in collaboration with the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
The main result is that 51% of respondents would welcome such an app, while 39% would not want to install one on their smartphones. The remaining 10% were not sure.
For comparison, only 7% of respondents found social distancing measures unacceptable, while 16% found the restriction to essential journeys unacceptable. Digging deeper, the survey revealed that resistance to such an app increases if the data is used to control personal freedom.
Only 19% would object to the data being used to predict the further spread of the virus based on movements and contacts, while a function that prompts the phone’s owner to stay in quarantine because of a risky contact would be opposed by 26% of respondents. But if the risky contact meant someone could not go into a supermarket or use public transport, then resistance rises to 54%.
The number of people willing to share their location data after the corona virus crisis has passed drops sharply, from 51% to 34% of respondents. Factor in contacts, and it drops to around 25%.
The survey also found that 78% of respondents are concerned that personal data shared in the context of the corona crisis will later become the property of other organisations or companies.
“Privacy is not yet dead,” commented Rob Heyman, co-ordinator of the Knowledge Centre. “In many cases our respondents weigh up the situation and only allow what is necessary.”
People are also well aware that data can be used for other purposes in the future. “The danger of ‘function creep’” is clear to them, so it’s important to ask for sufficient controls that limit the use of this data, both over time and in terms of location.”
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