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Technology27 November 2020

COVID-19 Tracking Applications vs. Social Trust in Governments

Social trend

One of the tools to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, used by countries around the world, are the so-called tracking applications, tracking the movement of citizens in order to minimize contact with potentially infected persons, identify them and all those with whom such a person could have direct contact. Although the validity of this method is often questioned – it is difficult to achieve a critical mass of their users, which is seen as crucial for it to be effective (although scientists from Oxford say otherwise, as I write below) – a significant number of countries already during the first spring wave of the pandemic decided to develop its own software of this kind.

A few days ago, the results of the distribution of the Polish ProteGo Safe application were posted, which – to put it mildly – are not overwhelming. According to available data, this application was downloaded in Poland by slightly more than a million citizens (approx. 2.5% of the population). The cost of creating and maintaining the application is currently estimated at approx. PLN 2.5 million (each month is over PLN 100 thousand of the cost of its maintenance), which, if it fulfilled its task, would not be an excessive amount, considering the fact that other countries spend much more, for example Germany spent around 20 million euro on its own application. At the moment, ProteGo Safe results are still far from the 15% threshold of adaptation by citizens, which, according to the University of Oxford, allows for a reduction in the number of infected by 15% and the number of deaths by 12%. These are new analyzes that scientists believe refute the global theory that tracking applications need 50-80% adaptation to be effective. Of course, the assumption that the more people in a given country use the application, the better remains unchanged.

After analyzing the data and dozens of sources on the development of losing applications around the world, I wondered if there is, and if so, how strong is the relationship between social trust in the government, which is fully responsible for their development, implementation and promotional activities, and the number of its downloads by citizens.After all, it is an intrusive software that, in order to function properly, in addition to the appropriate download scale, it also has to track the user’s location almost continuously. The use of applications that track the movement of citizens has been criticized by them in many countries, including South Korea, where the authorities responded to the concerns of Koreans that it was “crossing the limits of privacy due to greater necessity.” Therefore, it is not surprising that the personalized data collected by countries in this way may – now or in the future – be used for purposes other than fighting for the health and life of citizens in times of a pandemic. Hence, if citizens express doubts about the solution provider, they may decide to voluntarily install the application on their smartphones, let alone share the location.

In my search for dependencies, I compared data on citizens’ trust in governments with the latest available information on downloads of tracking applications. I took into account most of the countries with the highest trust in rulers, based on the latest Edelman 2020 barometer report (section “Trust in Government”) and publicly available information about the download rate in a given country, most often published by the relevant Ministries of Health. For comparison, I have also included data for Poland and Slovenia, which has the lowest app downloads in Europe, although this may be partly due to the fact that it was only made available to residents in mid-August.

From the first column on the left: Country, Trust Rate, Downloads, Remarks

Trust matters – conclusions

* Comparing the download results of the Polish application to the results of other countries, it is hard not to notice that compared to them, Poland fares very poorly – it is definitely at the bottom of the list. Moreover, our country has a similar result in the group of exclusively European countries.

* A certain correlation can be seen – in countries with high public support for governing, the adaptation of tracking applications is much higher than in countries where citizens do not show high trust in politicians responsible for building and implementing strategies to combat the pandemic.

* The above thesis is slightly eluded by Canada, Japan and the Netherlands, in which, despite very high support for the government, application adaptation remains at a relatively low level, although still much higher than in Poland. In their case, however, the key factor is the time factor. The application was introduced recently in all three countries: in Japan in July, similar in Canada, and in the Netherlands only at the beginning of October.

* Trust in developers of mobility tracking solutions, expressed by having choice and the ability to control private data, is crucial for citizens. This is confirmed by a study conducted by Ogury during the pandemic on a group of 16,000 respondents from the UK, Spain, the USA, France, Germany and Italy.



Additional sources:

* Material on the methodology and background for the development of tracking applications in individual countries
* Apps and COVID-19 – information on application implementations and their effectiveness
* Will COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Protect Privacy? – “TIME” material on the effectiveness and privacy of users of tracking applications.

The photo on the main shows a mural in Katowice by Peter FUSS. This Polish artist is known for provoking and attacking politicians in his works. The full text on the photo: “Don’t think, don’t ask, pay tax, vote for us”.

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