Consistent trust gap in contact-tracing apps in US, Europe

If there has been one consistent element in the numerous contact-tracing apps in use or under development across the world it is that almost all of them seem to have hit some technological hitch, but a survey has shown another shared element: a general lack of user trust.

The survey from digital advertising company Ogury found that no matter which technological choice a nation took in developing a contact-tracing app, user trust needed to be rebuilt by giving citizens choice and control.

Telecommunications has been an essential part of combatting the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with contact-tracing apps at the vanguard of monitoring and mitigating its spread. But in the same regard, there has been precisely no unity among countries, nor indeed within them. And with few exceptions, the whole idea of contact tracing, while conceptually popular, has proven in practice to be hugely controversial, bringing to the fore issues such as data privacy and security, along with the fundamental efficacy of the apps themselves.

The biggest divergence between countries is those that adopted a centralised database for their contact-tracing app – including France, Japan and, only up until few weeks ago before an embarrassing volte-face that saw such an approach abandoned, the UK – and those using a decentralised system making use of a decentralised data structure typically using an application programming interface (API) from Apple and Google. Switzerland, Ireland and most prominently Germany have fallen into this category.

From day one, the UK app has been plagued with issues about data privacy as much as function, while even the hugely successful German app has faced similar concerns.

These were highlighted in the Ogury study, which surveyed 16,178 people in a randomised sample of its opted-in users across six countries, namely the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, where the total number of respondents was 2,643. All questions were translated into appropriate local languages. The survey group was an equal balance of male and female, from age groups that ranged from 18-24 to 65+. The survey was carried out in the five-day period from 20-25 May 2020.

The findings from the UK, which reflect the period just before the centralised app was abandoned, revealed that only 41% of UK citizens were willing to share data with the government to combat Covid-19 and 60% would not trust the UK government to protect any data they share.

“Trusted consent will make or break the success of contact-tracing apps. Trust can be built if clear information on the app’s purposes and the data it requires are shared with the public, along with ultimate control over their data throughout”
Elie Kanaan, Ogury

In France, where the app has been downloaded by just 2% of the population, only 33% of respondents were willing to share any data to combat Covid-19, the least of all countries surveyed.

In the US, 62% said they would not trust the government with any data at all, while only a third trusted the government to protect the data they would share to combat Covid-19.

Looking at trends that emerged from the survey, Ogury chief marketing and strategy officer Elie Kanaan warned about the potential impact on the uptake of contact-tracing apps these findings indicate, in particular the lack of trust.

“Trusted consent will make or break the success of contact-tracing apps. Trust can be built if clear information on the app’s purposes and the data it requires are shared with the public, along with ultimate control over their data throughout,” he said.

“Users’ consent to the app’s purposes should also be traceable – a complex and difficult feat to manage nationwide, given the likely fluctuation of users’ preferences over time, but a detailed record of when users decided to provide, withdraw or reshare their data during their entire app journey is vital. Citizens know their data holds real value, and they will decide whether or not the contact-tracing app succeeds long term.”