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Covid-19 tracking apps: the trade-off between personal data and public health

Posted on August 13, 2020

More and more European countries are launching a Covid-19 tracking app. It is argued that if enough people use the app, it could slow down the spread of the coronavirus. But are we ready to share our data for the benefit of public health? Or are we too worried about our privacy? Here is what we can learn from behavioral science and data dilemmas in other domains.

People generally consider their privacy to be important and worth protecting. However, when the benefits of information disclosure seem to outweigh the potential risks, we happily give up on our privacy concerns. This is also called the "privacy paradox"; we say we care about our personal data, but if there is an opportunity, we trade it for something we think will benefit us.

We already share our location in return for navigation instructions, and let Spotify create playlists based on our favorite songs. But the trade-off between privacy and the benefits of sharing information is not always as clear. For example, we easily tell our bank how much we earn and how much we have in savings in return for the best mortgage advise, but are hesitant to do so for simple money management tools. So what factors determine whether we will share our data with Covid tracking apps in return for a slowdown of the virus?

Before we look into this, do you actually know what data these apps track?

A Bluetooth handshake

In contrast to common belief, most Covid-19 tracking apps in Europe use Bluetooth instead of GPS to track and trace with whom an infected person has been in close contact. The German Corona Warn-App, for example, exchanges anonymized and randomly generated Bluetooth-ID numbers with nearby phones; a Bluetooth handshake if you will. Once a user reports symptoms or a positive test, the app sends notifications to phones they have been near.

It sounds simple, but for the app to have an impact, a lot of engagement is required from the user. First of all, the app needs to be installed on someone's phone. And even though many people reported they would be willing to do so, only half ended up download the app, at least in Germany.

“There appears to be a gap between intentions and behaviors.”

After downloading the app, users need to turn on Bluetooth and take their phones everywhere they go. At the same time, they have to give consent for the exchange of data between their phones and phones in the environment. People also need to honestly report Covid-related symptoms or a positive test. And, perhaps most importantly, they must follow instructions from the app to go into quarantine.


Three crucial factors

When we look at people’s data sharing behavior in the financial domain, e.g., in return for personalized financial advice or discounts, we know that at least three factors play an important role.

  • First, people need to trust the organisation that collects and monitors the data.
  • Second, the organisation collecting the data must be transparent about how the data is being handled and used.
  • And third, people need to feel they are in control over their data in order to feel comfortable disclosing personal information.

It is important for people to know whether their data is in safe hands, but also who benefits from the information. Is it the companies with whom they have a primary relation, or third parties to which data is being sold? Or are the people sharing the data the main beneficiaries, for example when receiving online healthcare advise based on reported symptoms?

Even if all the criteria above have been met, people find it difficult to weigh the potential risks of data sharing against the expected benefits. They are bound by cognitive limitations and rely on heuristics instead.

It is, for example, quite difficult to calculate how valuable privacy is, and therefore also the value of protecting it. We also know that people’s perception of risks and benefits is influenced by when they expect them to happen. The sooner people experience the benefit of sharing information, the lower they consider the potential risks involved. Think of accepting cookies on a website – we accept them because we know we will be able to access the website immediately afterwards. The type of data we share by accepting cookies, and with whom, has suddenly become less important.

The power of others

There are clearly many factors that influence whether people are going to use Covid-19 tracking apps. And for good reasons, so long we know little about what type of data is being collected, by whom, and how our privacy is protected.

But if we are open to try a new app, we may only need one more thing to convert our intentions into actions: the power of others. While we are used to weighing privacy risks against the benefits for ourselves (e.g., with financial apps), as far as Covid-19 apps are concerned, the benefits lie in the health of the people around us – friends, family, neighbors, and so on. Emphasizing the benefits for society, and the social norm to care about others could stimulate people to start using the app. After all, if there is one example that shows individuals are prepared to sacrifice a little bit of themselves for the health of others, let’s remember the global lock-downs and hope we can prevent more in the future.

Want to read more about the behavioral science behind the trade-off between data privacy and health? Read the full article here.


This article is a contribution to the Think Forward Initiative by Roos van den Wijngaard, Associate Research Professional at ING.