Tracking The Coronavirus? If There's An App For That, Young People Will Download It

47 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 said they would install a COVID-19 tracking app

Young people are down to be tracked if they test positive for COVID-19.

According to a new poll from The Economist/YouGov, 47 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 said they would install an app on their phone that would allow them to anonymously alert people who have been near them if they had tested positive for COVID-19, and would allow them to be alerted if they had been close to someone else who tests positive. Only 29 percent of respondents from the same age group said they would not install a COVID-19 smartphone tracking app. (That response is much higher than the general population, of which only 35 percent said they’d be willing to install an app that could alert people to their positive COVID-19 test.)

And young people are less likely than the general population and older adults to see these apps as an invasion of privacy. In fact, two-thirds of the respondents said when choosing between public safety and civil liberties, they’d choose public safety, even if that means limiting some civil liberties.

This poll, which took place from April 19-April 21, comes just days before the government launched a contract with Palantir Technologies to build a database tracking the spread of the coronavirus around the nation, the Daily Beast first reported. You might know Palantir by its founder Peter Thiel, the conservative billionaire founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor, who notoriously sued Gawker out of business.

The company’s new project — currently called Project Now — will be part of the Department of Health and Human Services and will pull data from federal, state, and local governments, universities, and medical facilities according to Gizmodo. It’s an attempt to “mitigate and prevent spread” of the coronavirus, an HHS spokesperson told the Daily Beast, but is being faced with public backlash as Palantir already has contracts with federal law enforcement agencies, most infamously Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where the company has helped the agency raid immigrant communities. Palantir has also helped the National Security Agency spy on people, provided assistance to the Pentagon to help soldiers in the field, and helped enforce crackdowns from the NYC Office of Special Enforcement, Gizmodo reported.

“We are using the data aggregated... to paint a picture for the Task Force, and state and local leaders to show the impact of their strategic decisions,” an HHS spokesperson told the Daily Beast, adding that Project Now draws from 187 data sources including everything from the distribution of medical supplies to hospital capacity and inventories to testing data. “For instance, if there are a number of cases concentrated at a hospital next to an airport and a mass transit stop, we can build a predictive model using a transmission chain to predict how quickly the disease will spread taking into account these factors.”

This kind of tracker isn’t particularly new to countries like Israel, which tapped into a vast trove of previously undisclosed cellphone data originally gathered under the guise of counter-terrorism according to the New York Times, and South Korea, which used a smart-phone tracking app. Palanatir itself has pandemic modeling contracts in multiple other countries, including the United Kingdom and Greece, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While Palantir might be the only company contracted out by the United States government to create a virus tracking app, other tech platforms are creating them, too. Both Google and Apple announced a system for tracking the spread of the virus when users share information over Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions and approved apps, the Verge reported. That system is purely voluntary and will keep massive amounts of data on phones that have been in close physical proximity of each other. Users self-report if they have been tested, and what the result of that test was; that information can be accessed by public health authorities. The system, which is scheduled to be released in mid-May, alerts people with the app if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. At first, users will have to manually download the app; however, companies are working on building tracing functionality into the operating system, making it automatically built onto every iOS or Android phone.

Some of this data is contingent on the idea that people can and will be tested, which is an uphill battle of its own. For months, the U.S. has largely faltered in its testing capabilities, and ramp-up efforts are complex and slow-moving. Currently, doctors are reserving tests for people who present symptoms and are in key at-risk groups: people who “we basically know have it,” Dr. Darien Sutton-Ramsey, an emergency physician in New York, previously told MTV News.

All the while, privacy advocates are worried that trading in rights for safety is neither a smart nor safe move for the future of democracy. In a joint statement on April 2, more than 100 civil and digital rights organizations across the world, including urged that any government’s attempt to surveil people in the time of coronavirus-tracking should respect human rights.

“Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care,” the letter stated. “However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities — undermining the effectiveness of any public health response.”


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