Free Market

Contact Tracing Apps: Do People Trust Their Government?

The state of Utah recently spent $2.75 million on the development of an app, Healthy Together. Designed by social media company Twenty, this application was intended act as another tool in the state’s comprehensive response to COVID-19, including digital contact tracing, to improve citizens ability to recognize symptoms and get tested. In addition to the initial expense, the app costs $300,000 per month to maintain.

The good-natured intentions surrounding the purchase of this app —  limiting the spread of COVID-19 and keeping Utahns safe —  comes at a significant cost to taxpayers. The problem the Utah government faces now is the limited benefits the initial investment is realizing. 

A team at the University of Oxford worked at the start of the pandemic to run tests to see how effective contact tracing apps could be. The Oxford team found in simulations 60% of a population needed to use contact tracing apps to potentially stop the spread of the virus. However, it is also estimated that low levels of people using the contact tracing app would still see some reductions in the number of total COVID-19 cases. 

As of June 8th, just 65,000 Utahns had downloaded the Healthy Together app, a mere 1.4% of the state’s population. Oxford estimated with models to show how effective different levels of adoption for contact tracing apps could work to reduce the number of cases considerably. At the low level of 1.4% of the population using the app, the reduction in new cases is minimal. 

Given low numbers of Healthy Together app downloads, state officials recently announced that Healthy Together would be turning off GPS location tracking features. This decision came after health officials realized the app was not gaining the large support and acceptance by Utahns that they had hoped for.

Even with the GPS feature disabled, Healthy Together is still working with the state to assist in it’s COVID response efforts. The people that have downloaded the app are highly engaged, utilizing the features of the app for reporting any symptoms and providing the necessary data needed to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

A survey conducted in April regarding attitudes held by Americans towards contact tracing and personal privacy found that 59% of respondents claimed to be willing to give up some level of personal privacy to promote public health, while 77% claimed to be fearful of the government taking advantage of the new surveillance abilities. 

The fears of the government expanding its powers are understandable given recent and older examples of what economist Robert Higgs termed the “ratchet effect.” The ratchet effect is the idea that during a crisis, a government will establish “temporary” programs that expand its influence only to see the programs remain and the government realize an expansion of power. Although Twenty is a private company and app users are in control of their data, mistrust of governments keeps people worried. And though the idea of the Healthy Together app was that the data would only be used for health and COVID-19 related research, some may worry that the state could renege on its promise and ratchet up its powers.

The government having access to health data shows the worry Utahns hold given such a small portion of the population using the location tracking app. A credible commitment from the government to restrain itself from taking advantage of people’s data—in the form of legal protections with punitive consequences for those who misuse the data—would build more trust. New Jersey legislators, for example, are considering a proposed bill that would restrict the data collected to use only for COVID-19 health purposes and have it deleted 30 days after use. 

Representative Spendlove in Utah proposed similar legislation in a previous special session, but the Senate did not vote on the bill despite its getting a unanimous vote in the House. 

To facilitate contact tracing, Apple and Google decided to work together to make it easier for third party applications to take advantage of the bluetooth features on smartphones. Bluetooth features allow a smartphone to recognize other smartphones close by and collect data noting that the two people with these smartphones were close together. The big privacy worry, of course, centers around how Apple and Google will keep and use this data. 

Because of that concern, the companies decided to use a decentralized style of contact tracing data collection, where the data collected on a person’s phone is not sent directly to an Apple or Google server, but is stored locally on that phone instead. This gives each person control of their data. Apple and Google contrast with a centralized style of contact tracing data collection that is being utilized by some European countries such as France and the United Kingdom. France and the UK both collect the bluetooth data on government-based central servers. 

A decentralized method of data collection for contact tracing apps is the first step towards raising confidence in the security of personal data. The next step would be to make sure governments follow a standard procedure with limitations on how the data can be used, and establish consequences for those who violate these protections. 

The Libertas Institute has proposed a policy that would establish this sort of commitment by the government to not overstep their powers. Having a Privacy Protection Act in place would lead to increased confidence from the people of Utah in trusting their government’s collection and use of digital data. 

Nick Grose is a policy research intern with the Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Utah. He is currently working on a Master’s degree in economics at George Mason University.