Alumni

Faculty-Alumni Research Collaboration Shows Democrats and Republicans Alike Would Trade Phone Data to Combat COVID-19

Not only did data reveal that people along both major U.S. party lines were prepared to share their smartphone location information, but it also showed an inclination to sacrifice some individual technological privacy in support of the greater good.

Natasha Zhang Foutz

New research by McIntire Professor Natasha Zhang Foutz, in collaboration with X-Mode Founder Josh Anton (McIntire ’14), NYU Professor Anindya Ghose, CMU Professor Beibei Li, CMU PhD student Meghanath Macha, and NYU PhD student Chenshuo Sun, finds some surprising results in this highly politicized age.

As digital contact tracing and analysis of social distancing from smartphone location data have emerged as two highly effective non-therapeutic tools used in many countries to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the former method has raised questions and concerns over privacy and surveillance. Indeed, many have noted that the willingness to adopt the available strategies for combating coronavirus have had the unintended consequence of signaling a personal ideology.

Yet according to their recent paper, titled “Trading Privacy for the Greater Social Good: How Did America React During COVID-19?,” both Democrats and Republicans are willing to share individual-level smartphone location data, diverging along the lines of social-distancing compliance and demographics.

Foutz and her research team analyzed individual-level location data containing more than 22 billion records from 10 Democratic and 10 Republican political-leaning cities in the U.S., in an effort to understand how Americans responded to the increasing concerns that government authorities, the private sector, and public health experts might use their personal data to track the spread of COVID-19. Not only did the data reveal that people along both major U.S. party lines were prepared to share their smartphone location information, but it also showed an inclination to sacrifice some individual technological privacy in support of the greater good.

“Our study suggests that the reduced opt-out is potentially driven by individuals’ increasingly prosocial behavior during the pandemic,” says Foutz. “As we have controlled for the concerns for personal health risks, we have also seen a positive relationship between willingness to practice social distancing and willingness to share location data.”

The potentially positive aspects of providing personal data for greater societal health safety brought added attention to Anton’s X-Mode location data platform, which the entrepreneurial alumnus spoke to us about late last April.

So while contract tracing in and of itself doesn’t provide enough of a counterpunch to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the researchers believe that the government needs to create more partnerships with the private sector to make use of the massive dataset Americans are willing to make available in order to slow the spread of the disease.

Other key takeaways from the joint research paper include:

  • While people in Democratic cities were more privacy concerned than those in Republicans cities before the rise of COVID-19 crisis, there was a significant decrease in data sharing “opt-out” rates after the coronavirus began making headlines in the U.S., and this effect was more salient in the Democratic cities than in the Republican cities studied.
  • The practice of social distancing and willingness to share location data were positively correlated. In other words, individuals who practice social distancing also were more likely to share their location data, and vice versa.
  • High-income groups, cities with higher proportions of white residents, and males were more likely to be concerned about privacy than low-income groups, cities with more diverse populations, and women. These groups were also more likely to opt out of location tracking.
  • People identified as being at higher risk of contracting the virus were more likely to share their location tracking data. Additionally, cities that were hit harder by COVID-19 saw a greater decline in the opt-out rate.
  • The March 13 national emergency declaration by President Trump decreased the probability of a person opting out of location tracking.

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