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Contact tracing apps a tough sell so far in the U.S.

Largely due to privacy concerns, mobile contact tracing apps to help prevent COVID-19 spread are off to a very slow start in the U.S. [Source: Adobe Stock]

While a few states have begun to release mobile apps to help contain the spread of COVID-19 among their residents, these apps have also created concerns about users’ personal privacy. As a result, very few people in those states have downloaded them so far – the highest utilization rate is just 2%, according to data gathered in late May. 

Privacy advocates say these apps create new public surveillance methods during the pandemic which could lead to much bigger problems in the future. The American Civil Liberties Union also has warned state governments to put strict privacy procedures in place before launching tracking technology meant to prevent large new coronavirus outbreaks.

A majority of Americans seem to agree with these concerns. A Pew Research Center survey of adults conducted in April showed that 54% of Americans think it’s unacceptable to track the locations of all those who may have had contact with a COVID-positive person through their cellphones. An even larger 60% think that tracing contacts in this way would not make much of a difference in limiting the spread of the virus. 

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently analyzed 50 COVID-19-related apps available in the Google Play store, looking at how they access users’ personal data and their privacy protections. They found that only a handful of the apps indicated that the data gathered would be anonymous, encrypted and secured.

“What is disconcerting is that these apps are continuously collecting and processing highly sensitive and personally identifiable information, such as health information, location and direct identifiers [e.g., name, age, email address and voter/national identification],” they wrote in an article published in Nature Medicine. “Governments’ use of such tracking technology – and the possibilities for how they might use it after the pandemic – is chilling to many.” 

In late May, Apple and Google released their Application Programming Interface [API], which states and other health authorities can use to launch their own mobile contact tracing apps.  However, very few states – just five as of early June – have expressed interest in participating. Missouri is currently among the states which have opted not to make use of this technology. 

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