Only half of smartphone users would run a COVID-19 contact tracing app

MIT contact tracing for covid-19
Smartphones users don't trust tech companies enough to deploy upcoming contact tracing apps in sufficient numbers to reduce the spread of COVID-19, a new poll suggests. (MIT)

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found smartphone users are evenly split over using a future Apple-Google app to track their COVID-19 contacts.

The poll of 793 smartphone users conducted April 21 to 26 found 50% would use the app, with 17% saying they definitely would.  Another 50% said they would not use the app, with 20% saying they definitely would not.

Part of the skepticism comes from distrust of tech companies, including Google and Apple, according to the poll.  A 57% majority of the smartphone users said they have a great or good amount of trust in public health agencies, but just 47% trust health insurance companies and 43 % trust tech companies like Apple and Google.

Concern about health care privacy has renewed calls for more comprehensive national healthcare and data privacy laws.

RELATED: COVID-19 privacy: The debate over contact tracing and healthcare data

The smartphone users were part of a poll of 1008 American adults including people who do not have a smartphone. The poll found that for both smartphone users and non-smartphone users, 41% said they have a smartphone and are willing to use an infection-tracking app, but the Post noted that amount is below the 60% needed for a tracking app to stop a viral thread, as recommended by Oxford University researchers.

When the entire group of smartphone users and non-smartphone users is taken together, the poll found that nearly 60% of American are unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert apps.

The Post noted that even the terminology used to describe the tracking apps has changed, partly to de-emphasize the objectionable surveillance portion of the technology.  Google and Apple had been calling their planned aps “contact-tracing” apps, but both companies then started calling them “exposure notification” apps.  A member of the European Union has referred to such apps that are being used in various countries as “deconfinement apps” to stress their ability to relieve movement restrictions that are hurting companies and entire economies.

The proposed apps would work with Bluetooth inside most smartphones and create anonymized records of people they had interacted with during the day. When a smartphone user finds out he or she is infected, they can rely on health officials to sent them a code to use to send alerts to people they come in contact with. 

RELATED: Google, Apple partner on Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing tech