Distrust of Big Tech is Contact Tracing’s Biggest Hurdle

Experts debating the merits and risks of COVID-19 contact tracing apps may be missing the biggest problem of all – user trust.

As the health crisis continues to force social distancing, governments and private organizations around the world have developed contact tracing apps that could help track infections and notify people if they have come into contact with someone testing positive for the virus. Many of these will be based on the Contact Tracing Framework, a joint effort by Google and Apple. It’s a laudable effort by two bitter rivals in the mobile market who have come together to tackle a global problem. The framework uses Bluetooth proximity sensing rather than GPS location tracking to try and enforce privacy principles.

Experts are divided about contact tracing efforts. The UK ICO has approved it but expressed misgivings, while other experts have also said that privacy is at stake.

The problem with even the most privacy-respecting contact tracing framework or app is that the biggest bug of all may already be hardwired into part of the system: the users themselves. This is the part that’s most difficult to fix. People just don’t trust technology, the companies that sell it, or those that use it.

In collaboration with the University of Maryland, the Washington Post polled 1008 Americans to gauge their view of the Contact Tracing Framework and the apps built on it. It found that 50% would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ not use it. In fact, only 17% would ‘definitely’ use it.

One of the biggest barriers is trust, with 57% of people warning that they wouldn’t trust Apple or Google to keep that data anonymous. Only 10% said they trusted these companies ‘a great deal.’ Trust in universities and public health agencies increased somewhat, but still showed room for improvement. 43% of respondents wouldn’t trust these two kinds of institution either.

This is a sign of big tech's chickens coming home to roost. For years, companies have done their best to pull the wool over our eyes, using everything from dark patterns that dupe us into handing over privacy rights, through to covert data gathering and even recording people without their consent.

Aside from big tech, the other problem is a general lack of confidence in other companies' ability to handle data properly even if they wanted to. Every data breach or account takeover erodes peoples' trust not just in technology but in the companies who use it to manage customer records. Another survey released in April from Pew Research showed that over half of all Americans avoid using internet services, often because of data breaches that they've experienced in the past.

Now, when it matters most, technology platforms could be valuable assets in helping us to stop the spread of the disease. Many people will download these apps, but past activities - whether accidental or not - mean that getting others to adopt these solutions will be an uphill struggle.

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