With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the planet, governments are scrambling to contain the spread of the disease. While the scale and severity of the virus is not unprecedented, the level of panic around it certainly seems to be. As a consequence, the usage of extreme measures to handle this extreme situation might be about to become the norm in the short to medium term.
Even now in some countries, entire populations are being subject to intense surveillance while the medical data of those infected is shared across businesses, governments, and international agencies. The long-term effect of these anti-pandemic measures on personal privacy could be devastating.
With this in mind, we decided to ask people in the US how they feel about the potential of giving up their privacy during the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though we expected Americans to be more or less pro-privacy, we were nonetheless pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming support for their personal privacy rights. Even faced with a major global health threat, most people in America would oppose intrusive technological measures such as tracking apps to contain the spread of the virus.
At the same time, Americans are worried that such measures would lead to greater government surveillance in the long term, even after the pandemic has been defeated.
Our commissioned survey took place in April 2020 among a random representative sample of 1255 adults based in the US.
Here are the results.
The survey was based on the polling of a random sample of 1255 American adults via SurveyMonkey’s “Audience” platform, which ensures the demographic make-up of respondents is representative of the US population.
Overwhelming support for personal privacy
When it comes to the overall outlook towards privacy in the US, an overwhelming majority (~89%) of Americans either support or strongly support personal privacy rights.
While strong support for privacy is not particularly exceptional among Western audiences, does such enthusiasm persist even when faced with the threat of a global pandemic?
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Surprisingly, most (~52%) Americans believe that retaining their personal privacy is more important than surrendering it to the authorities in order to fight the spread of the pandemic.
However, when we asked if they would approve the use of controversial surveillance practices by the authorities to fight the spread of the pandemic, people were even more hesitant to surrender their privacy. Almost two thirds (~65%) would disapprove of their government collecting their data or using facial recognition to track their whereabouts.
Americans oppose intrusive patient tracking apps
In light of countries such as Singapore, Spain and Poland introducing or preparing to introduce mandatory geolocation and surveillance applications created to track COVID-19 patients, we presented the respondents with several imaginary scenarios that could also happen in the US.
The first scenario involved an app created by a private company that would track people’s location during a possible lockdown in order to determine their insurance premium rates. Only ~27% would give such an app permission to track their location.
Our second scenario included an app created by a government agency that would display a COVID-19 patient’s location to other residents in their city. Almost a third (~30%) of respondents indicated that they would grant such an app permission to display their location to others if they were infected.
The third imaginary scenario involved a state-sponsored app that would collect and analyze location data transmitted by people’s phones to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown. While ~42% would refuse to grant permission to track their location, more than a third (~36%) would give their location data to such an app.
In our fourth scenario, we asked the survey respondents how they would view other people who would not obey a government order to give up their location data in a city or region affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost half (~46%) would view such people either negatively or very negatively, with more than a third (~36%) sharing a neutral outlook.
While Americans had varying opinions on whether tracking software or hardware used to help stop the spread of COVID-19 should be operated by the public or private sector, the single dominant answer was “neither,” with “government agencies” being a close second.
All in all, the results again indicate a strong support for privacy among the population in the US.
Fears of long-term loss of privacy rights
Finally, roughly two-thirds of Americans are worried that the tracking measures used to contain the spread of the virus could lead to greater government surveillance.
In addition, the vast majority of survey respondents (~79%) were either somewhat worried or very worried that intrusive tracking measures enacted by the government would continue long after the COVID-19 pandemic has been defeated, with only ~9% not being worried at all.
Summary of our results
Even though the US has not yet introduced any new draconian surveillance measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the results of this survey indicate that American adults are far from complacent when it comes to their privacy.
There is some difference in opinion as to who should handle any possible tracking measures and how. However, it’s clear that in the event of a possible introduction of emergency surveillance applications, people in the US expect their privacy rights to be respected, although some fears about the long-term implementation of such measures remain.
While we can’t be certain where we’ll end up privacy-wise after this pandemic is over, what we do know is that today, privacy is something Americans hold dear.