UK public supports tracking technology and immunity passports, study finds

The majority of people in the UK are willing to use privacy-encroaching tracking technology and support the introduction of immunity passports during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to scientists.

By Iain Lynn
Friday, 22nd January 2021, 5:27 pm

More than two thirds of those involved in the study, which is published in the journal Plos One, said they would accept some form of a smartphone tracking app to help manage social distancing and the relaxation of a full lockdown.

But researchers say this finding is not reflected in the number of people who have downloaded the NHS Test and Trace app.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, said: “Attitudes were surprisingly permissive and this is good news for public health.

The majority of people in the UK are willing to use privacy-encroaching tracking technology

“But there appears to be a significant gap between what people say they’re willing to do and what they actually do, which needs further investigation.

“Lack of uptake is a big problem because such systems need more than half – 56% – of the general population on board to be effective in helping control a pandemic.

“As of the end of last month, nearly 21 million people in the UK had downloaded the (NHS Test and Trace) app, which is more than 10 million below target for it to work properly.

“There could be many reasons for this, which could be technological barriers, confusion, or simply lack of awareness.

“But the fact respondents were very receptive and open to such tools should be encouraging and indicates while people don’t want to throw away their privacy, they are willing to make compromises perhaps for the greater good.”

Research for the study comprised of two online surveys, one in March 2020 and the second in April 2020, of more than 3,500 participants in total. The NHS Test and Trace app was introduced in September 2020.

Both surveys presented at least two scenarios.

One scenario was an app, using smartphone tracking data to identify and contact those who may have been exposed to people with Covid-19, which was optional to download.

In the second, this app was compulsory for all mobile phone users and enabled the Government to use the data to locate anyone violating lockdown laws and enforce them with fines and arrests.

About 70% of participants accepted the opt-in app and 65% accepted the mandatory version with tighter enforcement.

When a sunset clause was introduced, resulting in all data being deleted after two weeks, acceptance levels of both scenarios rose to more than 75%.

This increased to more than 85% when an opt-out clause was provided on top of the time limit.

Prof Lewandowsky said: “Such high levels of acceptance were quite unexpected but welcome.

“It would be concerning if people didn’t care at all about their privacy, but the fact they indicated even greater acceptance with additional measures to preserve it is reassuring and suggests careful consideration before being willing to surrender it.”

The second survey also explored attitudes towards immunity passports, which could be issued to people who carry Covid-19 antibodies.

More than 60% of those who took part in the study said they would want one, with only 20% strongly opposed to the idea, mainly on grounds of fairness.

“It’s fascinating how people seem increasingly receptive to their personal data being used to inform themselves and others about what they can and can’t do,” Prof Lewandowsky said.

“As a follow-up, it would be beneficial to know whether people have relaxed their privacy attitudes as an exception due to the emergency situation or if our findings show a wider acceptance of privacy-encroaching technologies, for example continuous monitoring of your power consumption at home or tracking of location by law enforcement authorities.”

The research is part of an international project, with similar surveys being conducted in countries including Australia, the US, Taiwan, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and Spain.

The paper, Public acceptance of Privacy-Encroaching Policies to Address the Covid-19 Pandemic in the United Kingdom, is published in Plos One.

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