CMU-Pitt Seminar on Information Technology & Economics

  • Remote Access Enabled - Zoom
  • Virtual Presentation
  • Anna Loomis McCandless Chair, and
  • Associate Professor of Information Technology and Management
  • Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

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

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 concernsthat government authorities, the private sector, and public health experts mightuse individual-level location data to track the COVID-19 spread. First, we found a significant decreasing trend of mobile-app location-sharing optout. 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 optout, whereas the converse was true for people who practiced less social-distancing. This relationship also was more salient among Democraticthan Republican cities. Third, high-income populations and males, compared with low-income populations and females, werem ore privacy-conscientious and more likely to optout 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.

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