The two tech giants are working with public health authorities and university researchers to produce a set of tools that apps could use to notify users who come in close contact with a person who tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The initiative has been portrayed as a way to enhance traditional forms of contact tracing to find potential new infections and help make resumption of economic and social activities safer in the months ahead.
But the effort faces several major barriers, including that approximately 1 in 6 Americans do not have smartphones, which would be necessary for running any apps produced by the initiative. Rates of smartphone ownership are much lower among seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of covid-19, with just over half of those aged 65 or older saying that they have a smartphone (53 percent). Rates are even lower for those 75 and older, according to the Post-U. Md. poll.
The findings were released Wednesday, shortly before Apple and Google said they were delivering the “first seeds” of their collaboration to developers and public-health agencies around the world.
Among the 82 percent of Americans who do have smartphones, willingness to use an infection-tracing app is split evenly, with 50 percent saying they definitely or probably would use such an app and an equal percentage saying they probably or definitely would not. Willingness runs highest among Democrats and people reporting they are worried about a covid-19 infection making them seriously ill. Resistance is higher among Republicans and people reporting a lower level of personal worry about getting the virus.
Despite reservations about the technology, 59 percent of smartphone users said they would “be comfortable” using such an app, if they tested positive for covid-19, to anonymously alert others that they may have been exposed and should seek testing.
A major source of skepticism about the infection-tracing apps is distrust of Google, Apple and tech companies generally, with a majority expressing doubts about whether they would protect the privacy of health data. A 57 percent majority of smartphone users report having a “great deal” or a “good amount” of trust in public health agencies, and 56 percent trust universities. That compares with 47 percent who trust health insurance companies and 43 percent who trust tech companies like Google and Apple.
“I don’t feel like they have a good track record of taking care of people’s privacy and data. And I don’t want to give them more if I don’t trust them,” said Brent Weight, 43, a Republican-leaning independent voter who runs a small trucking company in Rigby, Idaho. “Seems like every other day you’re hearing of a data breach in a big company, and they’re losing credit card information and everything else. For them to just tell us it’s going to be safe and anonymized, I’m not going to take them at face value.”
Among Americans overall, 41 percent say they both have a smartphone and are willing to use an infection-tracking app, the poll finds. Oxford University researchers have suggested that 60 percent of a country’s population would need to use a coronavirus-tracking app like this to stop the viral spread. Reduced adoption could limit its effectiveness in slowing new infections and deaths.
Apple and Google said the underlying software would depend on local health agencies developing their own apps and alerting people to download and use them. The companies said Wednesday that they had begun delivering the first elements of the software to developers working with public-health authorities around the world.
Company representatives said the full app-dependent system is in testing and will be released in the middle of May. In a second phase of development, expected in the coming months, Apple and Google said they will fold the system into a software update rolled out to users worldwide.
Similar apps are being developed in numerous countries and are gaining traction in several places, including the United Kingdom, but have struggled to achieve widespread adoption.
In India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, Bluetooth-based app Aarogya Setu has been downloaded more than 75 million times, a technology minister there said. The government said development of a system that could work with phones simpler than smartphones is underway.
Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which launched last month, has been downloaded by approximately a fifth of the population. In Australia, more than 2 million people have downloaded the government’s COVIDSafe app since its Sunday release — about 8 percent of the country’s 25 million people.
“Well done Australia. … But we’ve still got more to do,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted Tuesday.
Google and Apple originally referred to their planned apps as “contact-tracing” tools, evoking the public health teams that track viral spread. But the companies more recently have begun referring to “exposure notification” apps — part of a shift in focus from the surveillance to the personal benefit.
After a call last week with Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Thierry Breton, a member of the European Union’s executive branch, went one step further, calling them “deconfinement apps,” a term that stressed their potential to relieve the economically devastating movement restrictions imposed by government officials worldwide as they try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The apps would work by using the short-range Bluetooth radios standard in smartphones to create anonymized records of the people they had interacted with while going about their day. When smartphone users learn that they are infected, health officials would give them a code they could use to send alerts to the people they had come into contact with, urging protective measures such as testing or quarantine.
The design is intended to mitigate privacy concerns inherent in a technological approach to identifying possible new infections, the tech companies have said. They say the apps would not collect location data or save records to a central database and would instead rely on the records saved and distributed across people’s phones, which would be privacy-protected and periodically erased.
Alvonica Jackson, 32, a stay-at-home mom in the District who described herself as a registered Democrat who leans independent, said she thinks the system offers some good ideas. But she questions how useful a voluntary, honor-system model would really be.
“A few people might do it, but a lot of people [won’t], so the data coming back might not be as accurate because not a lot of people are going to tell the truth,” she said. Even people who might be open to trying it will face a fundamental hurdle, she added: When someone is diagnosed, “they’re going to be too sick to worry about an app.”
A leading factor in whether Americans are willing to use such an app is their level of concern about the coronavirus. Among those reporting they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about becoming seriously ill with the disease, 59 percent say they would use an app. Among those not worried, willingness to use such apps drops to 35 percent. A similar split exists between Democrats and Republicans: 61 percent of Democrats say they would at least probably use such an app, compared with 48 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans.
Real estate agent Robert Sandefur, 61, a Republican in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said that the danger from the pandemic has been overblown and expressed concern that the restrictions by government officials have encroached on basic constitutional freedoms. He expressed opposition to smartphone apps for notifying people of infection risk.
“I don’t really like that. It sounds to me more like tattling,” Sandefur said. “Privacy issues are being violated here.”
But Jimmie Fosbrink, 57, a Republican and a retired home-care nurse in mountainous southwestern Pennsylvania, said she would welcome an app to help spread word of possible exposure. Fosbrink began preparing for the pandemic several months ago after the first reports of a mysterious new respiratory infection in China and has monitored its deadly progress all the way to Fayette County, where she lives.
“We’re already tracked, so why not use it for the good of the population to help fight the pandemic?” said Fosbrink, who uses a Samsung smartphone. “Open up your Google Maps, and it will already tell where you’ve been.”
Her one condition: Adoption of any app must be voluntary. “I would rather be the one to reach out for the technology,” she said.
The Post-U. Md. poll strongly suggests that the tech companies, university researchers and public health authorities developing these infection-alert apps will need a significant public education campaign to win widespread usage of the technology.
A poll published last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found the nation similarly split on willingness to use an infection-alert app but found much higher rates of acceptance — with 2 out of every 3 Americans willing — when they were told the technology was seen as assisting in opening schools and businesses and helping revive the stalled national economy. But fewer than 3 in 10 were willing to use an app if there was a “chance the data could be hacked.”
Which institution produces the apps — be they tech companies, universities or public health officials — could also prove crucial to public acceptance.
Elementary school teacher Tom Melaniff, 56, a Democrat who lives in Long Island, near the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter, knows “tons of people” who have gotten sick from covid-19, yet he said he would be reluctant to use an app developed by major tech companies because “they have too much information.”
Melaniff’s opposition to using such apps softens if they are designed by major universities, especially those with top-notch reputations such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is developing one of the apps.
“It might be a different story” with a university project, Melaniff said. “Tech companies, no way.”
The poll was conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. Interviews were conducted April 21 to 26 among a random national sample of 1,008 adults, 70 percent of whom were reached on cellphones and 30 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The sample of 793 smartphone users has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points.
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.