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Why Americans are uneasy about COVID-19 contact-tracing

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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.”

—M.K.

“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

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com

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