Decentralized is not risk-free: Understanding public perceptions of privacy-utility trade-offs in COVID-19 contact-tracing apps

by   Tianshi Li, et al.

Contact-tracing apps have potential benefits in helping health authorities to act swiftly to halt the spread of COVID-19. However, their effectiveness is heavily dependent on their installation rate, which may be influenced by people's perceptions of the utility of these apps and any potential privacy risks due to the collection and releasing of sensitive user data (e.g., user identity and location). In this paper, we present a survey study that examined people's willingness to install six different contact-tracing apps after informing them of the risks and benefits of each design option (with a U.S.-only sample on Amazon Mechanical Turk, N=208). The six app designs covered two major design dimensions (centralized vs decentralized, basic contact tracing vs. also providing hotspot information), grounded in our analysis of existing contact-tracing app proposals. Contrary to assumptions of some prior work, we found that the majority of people in our sample preferred to install apps that use a centralized server for contact tracing, as they are more willing to allow a centralized authority to access the identity of app users rather than allowing tech-savvy users to infer the identity of diagnosed users. We also found that the majority of our sample preferred to install apps that share diagnosed users' recent locations in public places to show hotspots of infection. Our results suggest that apps using a centralized architecture with strong security protection to do basic contact tracing and providing users with other useful information such as hotspots of infection in public places may achieve a high adoption rate in the U.S.


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