Trading Privacy for the Greater Social Good: How Did America React During COVID-19?

84 Pages Posted: 10 Jun 2020

See all articles by Anindya Ghose

Anindya Ghose

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business

Beibei Li

Carnegie Mellon University - H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management

Meghanath Macha

Carnegie Mellon University - H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management

Chenshuo Sun

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business

Natasha Zhang Foutz

University of Virginia

Date Written: June 10, 2020

Abstract

Digital contact tracing and analysis of social distancing from smartphone location data are two prime examples of non-therapeutic interventions used in many countries to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many understand the importance of trading personal privacy for the public good, others have been alarmed at the potential for surveillance via measures enabled through location tracking on smartphones. In our research, we analyzed massive yet atomic individual-level location data containing over 22 billion records from ten “Blue” (Democratic) and ten “Red” (Republican) cities in the U.S., based on which we present, herein, some of the first evidence of how Americans responded to the increasing concerns that government authorities, the private sector, and public health experts might use individual-level location data to track the COVID-19 spread. First, we found a significant decreasing trend of mobile-app location-sharing opt out. Whereas areas with more Democrats were more privacy-concerned than areas with more Republicans before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a significant decrease in the overall opt-out rates after COVID-19, and this effect was more salient among Democratic than Republican cities. Second, people who practiced social distancing (i.e., those who traveled less and interacted with fewer close contacts during the pandemic) were also less likely to opt out, whereas the converse was true for people who practiced less social-distancing. This relationship also was more salient among Democratic than Republican cities. Third, high-income populations and males, compared with low-income populations and females, were more privacy-conscientious and more likely to opt out of location tracking. Overall, our findings demonstrate that during COVID-19, people in both Blue and Red cities generally reacted in a consistent manner in trading their personal privacy for the greater social good but diverged in the extent of that trade-off along the lines of political affiliation, social-distancing compliance, and demographics. 

Keywords: consumer privacy, location tracking, smartphone, public health, COVID-19

Suggested Citation

Ghose, Anindya and Li, Beibei and Macha, Meghanath and Sun, Chenshuo and Foutz, Natasha Zhang, Trading Privacy for the Greater Social Good: How Did America React During COVID-19? (June 10, 2020). NYU Stern School of Business, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3624069 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3624069

Anindya Ghose

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business ( email )

44 West 4th Street
Suite 9-160
New York, NY NY 10012
United States

Beibei Li

Carnegie Mellon University - H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States

Meghanath Macha

Carnegie Mellon University - H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213
United States

Chenshuo Sun (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - Leonard N. Stern School of Business ( email )

44 W 4th Street
Suite 9-160
New York, NY 10012
United States

Natasha Zhang Foutz

University of Virginia ( email )

1400 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
4349240873 (Phone)
22904 (Fax)

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