In recent weeks, governments and private companies have unveiled a slew of new technologies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 much to the chagrin of civil liberty groups and privacy advocates.

Factories have implemented facial recognition to ensure employees are complying with face mask guidance and airports have introduced thermal imaging cameras to pinpoint elevated body temperature, a potential signifier of a coronavirus infection. The public health crisis has also spawned a few other peculiar pandemic offerings including contact tracing apps that leverage Bluetooth to pinpoint close contacts who could be at risk.

Americans are trudging through uncharted waters on a social, professional, and personal level. With this new pandemic landscape and the onslaught of a host of panoptic technologies, comes a bevy of privacy and data collection concerns. So how much privacy are Americans willing to trade for the promise of greater public safety?

A new Pew Research poll takes a look at the current sentiment regarding these new contact tracing applications and data collection. The survey titled “How Americans see digital privacy issues amid the COVID-19 outbreak” illustrates varying concerns among US adults regarding privacy as the coronavirus rages on globally.

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Key findings

Recently, Google unveiled its Community Mobility Reports. These regularly updated datasets utilize individuals’ enabled location history to track movements in communities around the globe.

At the moment, Americans appear skeptical, to say the least, about the overall effectiveness such a utility will serve in combating the pandemic. Overall, 60% of American’s think tracking locations via cell phones would “not make much of a difference” to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, only a mere 16% of individuals surveyed believed such tracking would “help a lot.”

In general, the survey illustrates a broad split among Americans when it comes to the acceptability of the government tracing peoples’ movements via cell phones during the pandemic.

Overall, 62% believed it would be “somewhat” or “very unacceptable” for the government to track cell phone data to ensure people are following recommended social distancing protocols. There does appear to be a shift in the sentiment toward cell phone tracking when it comes to monitoring those with COVID-19. More than half (52%) of those surveyed believed it “somewhat” or “very” acceptable for the government to track the cell phones of individuals who have contracted COVID-19 to gain a better understanding of how the pandemic is spreading.

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More risks than overall benefits

On the whole, Americans see far fewer benefits than risks associated with data collection. A Pew Research survey conducted in June 2019 found that most Americans believed they benefited in no way or “very little” from data collection measures conducted on behalf of governments (76%) and companies (72%).

Nearly eight-out-of 10 Americans (79%) felt at a minimum “somewhat” concerned regarding how their data was being used by companies. This number dropped marginally when it came to the US government’s use of collected data. In fact, 64% felt “somewhat” or “very concerned” regarding the government collecting personal data.

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‘Right to be forgotten’ and medical data collection

Currently, the aggregation of sensitive personal medical information is squarely in the spotlight due to the coronavirus pandemic and contact tracing measures underway.

In the 2019 survey, the overwhelming majority of US adults believed that all Americans ought to have the “right to be forgotten,” meaning the right to have their personal information permanently removed from public searches and databases if they choose to do so. When medical data was specifically addressed, 69% of US adults believed the right to be forgotten should include healthcare provider data and all organizations and people with this information.

IMAGE: iStock/MaksimTkachenko