Are Australians willing to accept technologies to track the contacts of people who have tested positive to COVID19?

Simon Dennis, Josh White, Paul Garrett, Daniel Little, Amy Perfors,
Yoshi Kashima, Stephan Lewandowsky*
University of Melbourne
University of Bristol*

79% of Australians think it is acceptable for the government to work with telecommunication companies to track who has been in contact with people who have tested positive to COVID-19. If an option is added for people to opt-out of tracking, 92% support this strategy.

Contact tracing is being used by countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel to control the spread of COVID-19. If we are able to identify who has been exposed to COVID-19, they could be asked or required to isolate, decreasing the likelihood of transmitting the disease to others. However, there are several ways in which these technologies could be implemented with different implications for people’s privacy.

To assess the Australian public’s perspective, we surveyed 1000 people balanced to match the populace on gender, age, and state of residence. Participants were presented with one of two scenarios.

In the first scenario, only people that downloaded a government app and agreed to be tracked and contacted would be included in the project and data would only be used to contact those who might have been exposed to COVID-19.

In the second scenario, all people using a mobile phone would have their location tracked, with no possibility to opt-out. The Australian Government would use the data to locate people who were violating lockdown orders and enforce them with fines and arrests where necessary.

When we asked people who received the first scenario if they would download the app, 70% said they would. When we asked people if they thought the second scenario was acceptable, 79% said it was.

We then asked a series of questions designed to assess participants’ attitudes about COVID-19 and their sensitivity to the privacy issues involved in tracking. We then asked those who received the first scenario whether they would download the app again. Now 67% said they would, while 75% of those who received the second scenario now endorsed the policy. Being sensitized to the privacy dimensions of the scenarios decreased the willingness of people to adopt the policies, although not to a large extent.

If people who saw scenario two were not willing to accept the policy we asked a follow-up question to see if allowing people to opt-out of the tracking would change their decision. 61% said it would, suggesting that 92% of Australian’s would support a policy in which the government worked with telecommunications companies to trace people’s contacts if there was an option to opt-out. If the same group were asked if they would support the policy if it would cease after six months (a sunset clause), 40% said they would.

We are currently in the process of running similar surveys in many countries including the UK, the US, Germany, Spain, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The results from the UK survey were quite different from our results. In the UK, people were more likely to endorse the first scenario than the second. Some hints as to why this might be the case can be found in the opinions about effectiveness. Australians think the second scenario is more likely to lead to a containment of the spread and more likely to allow them to return to work more rapidly whereas this was not the case in the UK.

See our preliminary analysis here.

More Information

Simon Dennis | CHDH Director