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Why Americans are uneasy about COVID-19 contact-tracing

June 24, 2020, 2:32 PM UTC

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Coronavirus contact-tracing efforts face a mega-sized uphill battle.

When it comes to using new technology, like smartphone location data, to help contain the pandemic, people have major reservations. More than half of Americans—53%—say they’re uncomfortable with data collection for contact tracing, according to a new study commissioned by Okta, a company whose software helps people log into online accounts.

The poll’s findings do not inspire confidence in contact tracing’s ability to find public favor. The vast majority of Americans—84%—fear that data collection efforts aimed at helping to contain the coronavirus cost too much in the way of privacy. Even more Americans—87%—worry that such efforts will make their data insecure.

The U.S. is not alone in its reluctance. Other countries are struggling to find a receptive audience for their contact tracing apps: In France, only 1.8 million people, or 2.7% of the population, have downloaded the country’s contact tracing app since it became available on June 2. Elsewhere in Europe, only around 5% of the populations of Italy (3 million people) and Denmark (300,000 people) have downloaded their respective apps.

Germany has fared better; in the week since its app debuted, it has reached 12 million downloads, or 14% of the population.

Having solicited reader feedback about contact tracing efforts in last week’s column, I am surprised neither by the survey results, nor by the struggle countries are facing. Like the more rigorous Okta study—which polled more than 12,000 people across six countries—the anecdotal evidence I gathered was overwhelmingly negative. People are skeptical of the premise that contact tracing apps are an effective or worthwhile pursuit, and they are especially wary of potential threats to privacy.

Here’s what you said. (Names are cited with reader permission.)

“I would not support or use. The benefits for me are less than giving up any degree of privacy. I’m healthy and practice social distancing and wash/sanitize often.”

—Denise Thomas

“Do I trust that the information collected won’t be used against me? Based upon what’s been published…I think not for now.”

—Gary Bielous

“In spite of the fact that Coronavirus contract tracing is probably a good cause and suggestions are being made with the best of intentions, citizens are right to be hesitant to give in to such initiatives.”

—JD Dillon

“I see high downsides and almost nonexistent upsides to this idea.”

—Nathan Schiller

“I’m sure that various law enforcement agencies would see it as an invaluable tool…. I feel certain it would also be used to infringe on our constitutionally protected rights of assembly and association. I also feel, just generally, that barring some strongly articulable reason to the contrary, where I go and who I associate with are my private business. That is one aspect of freedom, it is valuable to me, and I am loathe to give it up involuntarily.”


“The peace of mind that is brought by knowing that if I ventured into an area that later is found to have cases of Covid-19 is much greater than the concern that the government can monitor my actions. I don’t have anything to hide about what I do and where I go. Knowing I am at risk or others are at risk because of contact is much more important for law-abiding people.”

—James Warner

If Data Sheet readers are any indication, public health officials have their work cut out for them when it comes to persuading people to download and use contact-tracing apps.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett



Flipping the bird. Tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump threatened in a post on Twitter to use "serious force" against protesters in Washington, D.C. The birdie-blogging site said the tweet violated its rules "about abusive behavior," and it slapped on a warning label. This is the fourth time Twitter has found the president's rhetoric to be in breach of its policies.

From wunderbar to verboten. German fintech darling-turned-drama queen Wirecard's until-recent CEO Markus Braun was arrested by police after the company said $2 billion on its balance sheet probably does not exist. Now out on €5 million bail, Braun faces suspicions of financial fraud, though he has long denied such impropriety. 

The farmer in the Dell. Dell is reportedly exploring a sale of its 81% stake in the cloud software giant VMware, worth some $50 billion. The PC maker could use the money to pay down $48 billion in debt, money it raised to complete a mega-merger with tech giant EMC in 2016. Investors drove Dell shares up 21% in extended trading on the news.

Like a hole in the head. Three Republican Senators—Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee—have proposed a piece of encryption-related legislation. The bill would force tech companies to help investigators access encrypted data when ordered by a court. Though the bill does not mandate a "backdoor," security experts warn any encryption workarounds weaken security for everyone.

Another one bites the dust. Facebook is discontinuing Oculus Go, its cheapest virtual-reality headset model. The company will instead focus on selling more expensive models, like the Quest and Rift S. Facebook is also piloting a crowdsourced prediction app called Forecast. The app is available only to a limited set of testers, but their predictions are publicly available here

Distributed Denial of Tweets. An activist group called Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, published nearly 270 gigabytes of hacked law enforcement data, claiming it originated with Anonymous, a sprawling hacker group. The data appears to have been purloined from Netsential, a Texas-based web design and hosting shop that helps build police data-sharing portals. Twitter suspended DDoSecrets' account after the group tweeted links to the hacked material.

Is that your tweet or are you just happy to see me?


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Adults have a hard enough time keeping up good password hygiene. But children have an even harder time, as Karen Renaud, a professor of cybersecurity at Scotland's Abertay University, writes for the Wall Street Journal. One piece of advice, which parents can teach their young: Come up with a silly sentence for your password. (For the grownups: I recommend a password manager.)

The problem is that password “good practice” requires skills that very young children might not yet have developed, even as many of them are using online devices from a very young age.

For example, consider a 4-year-old who is just learning how to read. She would likely be hard pressed to memorize an alphanumeric password, because she doesn’t yet know her alphabet. Instead, she may have to remember a shape on the keyboard. As children learn their alphabet, they start being able to reproduce simple passwords. But because they type very slowly, they will have a hard time remembering the moving position within the password while they search for the right key.


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The space race is heating up. Last week Chinese scientists reported major progress on technology that could enable an ultra-secure, global communications network beamed from space. This week China launched into orbit the final satellite in its BeiDou-3 navigation system, meaning the country no longer will need to rely on the U.S.'s GPS.

Keep your eye on the sky, folks.