A plurality of Americans believe COVID-19 smartphone apps are an invasion of privacy

April 27, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

The United States is debating plans to reopen the country without sparking more outbreaks after essentially shutting down the economy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those plans might include phone apps that can monitor people who have been exposed to the coronavirus, similar to what’s been used in some other countries. But the latest Economist/YouGov Poll finds that Americans may not opt-in. A plurality (43%) believe the smartphone apps are an invasion of privacy.

The COVID-19 smartphone tracking apps divide the public. Many of the proposed apps claim to provide anonymous information about whether a person has been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, but Americans are evenly divided on whether they approve of this development. Democrats, those with post-college graduate educations, and young adults approve—but most others do not.

COVID-19: Personal Effects

Just over one-third (35%) in the poll say they would install the app if it becomes available. Democrats (51%) and young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 (47%) are the most likely to say they would do this. 

Privacy concerns surround the apps, despite promises of anonymity. By 43 percent to 28 percent, Americans say a smartphone app that could track their exposure to COVID-19 would be an invasion of privacy. 

One of the reasons for the differences between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 includes different beliefs about the threat from the virus and how it ranks with other values. When asked whether it’s more important that the government respect civil liberties or ensure public safety, Democrats overwhelmingly choose public safety over civil liberties (84% vs 16%), while Republicans are more closely divided (53% vs 47%). 

But another difference is that Republicans are less likely to see the need for strict measures. They worry less about COVID-19. Three in 10 Republicans (30%) are very concerned about an epidemic in the US, which is 42 points lower than the percentage of Democrats who are very concerned. When asked whether the government’s count of those who have died from COVID-19 is accurate, one in three Republicans (37%) believe that it is an overestimate, a jump of ten points in the last week. Two in three Democrats see it as an underestimate (70%).

COVID-19: Local and National Effects

Republicans also believe the epidemic, if it is one, will end more quickly. In fact, 17 percent of Republicans believe social distancing is no longer necessary today (just 2% of Democrats agree). A third of Republicans expect the need for social distancing will end by May 1, compared with just 6 percent of Democrats. Half of Republicans (51%) and three in 10 Democrats (30%) think it will be unnecessary by June 1. 

Related: Many Americans aren’t confident they could manage their expenses during a recession

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll

Image: Getty