Americans' perceptions of privacy and surveillance in the COVID-19 pandemic

Baobao Zhang, Sarah Kreps, Nina McMurry, R. Miles McCain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Objective: To study the U.S. public's attitudes toward surveillance measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, particularly smartphone applications (apps) that supplement traditional contact tracing. Method We deployed a survey of approximately 2,000 American adults to measure support for nine COVID-19 surveillance measures. We assessed attitudes toward contact tracing apps by manipulating six different attributes of a hypothetical app through a conjoint analysis experiment. Results: A smaller percentage of respondents support the government encouraging everyone to download and use contact tracing apps (42%) compared with other surveillance measures such as enforcing temperature checks (62%), expanding traditional contact tracing (57%), carrying out centralized quarantine (49%), deploying electronic device monitoring (44%), or implementing immunity passes (44%). Despite partisan differences on a range of surveillance measures, support for the government encouraging digital contact tracing is indistinguishable between Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%), although more Republicans oppose the policy (39%) compared to Democrats (27%). Of the app features we tested in our conjoint analysis experiment, only one had statistically significant effects on the selfreported likelihood of downloading the app: decentralized data architecture increased the likelihood by 5.4 percentage points. Conclusion: Support for public health surveillance policies to curb the spread of COVID-19 is relatively low in the U.S. Contact tracing apps that use decentralized data storage, compared with those that use centralized data storage, are more accepted by the public. While respondents' support for expanding traditional contact tracing is greater than their support for the government encouraging the public to download and use contact tracing apps, there are smaller partisan differences in support for the latter policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0242652
JournalPloS one
Issue number12 December
StatePublished - Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


Dive into the research topics of 'Americans' perceptions of privacy and surveillance in the COVID-19 pandemic'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this