Culture shapes willingness to share personal data to reduce COVID-19 spread


Culture, civic-mindedness and privacy concerns influence how willing people are to share personal location information to help stem the transmission of COVID-19 in their communities, a new study finds. Such sharing includes giving public health authorities access to their geographic information via data gathered from phone calls, mobile apps, credit card purchases, wristband trackers or other technologies.

Reported in the International Journal of Geo-Information, the study will help public health officials better tailor their COVID-19 mitigation strategies to specific cultural contexts, the researchers said.

The scientists assessed survey responses from 306 people living in the United States and South Korea. Participants were recruited through social media and were younger and more highly educated than the general population of those countries. Conducted in late June and early July, the surveys asked participants to rate their privacy concerns, perceptions of social benefit and acceptance of a variety of COVID-19 mitigation efforts that involve collecting geographic data from individuals.

“For each method, we wanted to see how these factors influenced people’s willingness to share their data,” said Junghwan Kim, a graduate student in geography and geographic information science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who led the research with Mei-Po Kwan, a geography professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Kim’s doctoral adviser at the U. of I.

Understanding the factors that influence these decisions is key to designing effective public health campaigns, Kim said. What works in one society may not be viable in a different part of the world.

Participants answered questions about conventional contact tracing, where public health officials call those who test positive for the virus to interview them about where they’ve been and whom they’ve potentially exposed. Such methods are time-consuming and inefficient, however, so the researchers also asked participants to rate their attitudes toward public health efforts that collect geolocation information from their phones, track their credit card purchases, ask them to wear a wristband or require that they carry a ‘travel certificate’ demonstrating that they have tested negative for COVID-19.

The surveys also asked subjects to rate how they felt about the public disclosure of location, gender and age information of those who tested positive for the virus, or for the sharing of the public locations they had visited without disclosure of their gender and age.

The team found that people were more concerned about—and less likely to accept—methods that collected more sensitive and private information.

“Not surprisingly, we saw that there is a trade-off relationship between privacy concerns and social benefits,” Kim said. “So, there is more acceptance when a person’s privacy concern is low and the perceived social benefits are high. We also found that people in South Korea have a significantly higher acceptance of most mitigation efforts than those in the U.S.”

This higher acceptance may have to do with South Korea’s previous experience with the Middle East respiratory syndrome, which is caused by a much deadlier coronavirus than the one that causes COVID-19, Kwan said. But it likely also is a reflection of South Korea’s culture.

“Compared with people in the U.S., South Koreans have a stronger collectivist—rather than individualist—culture,” she said. “They also have lower privacy concerns and perceive greater social benefits for COVID-19-mitigation measures.”

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