star twitter facebook envelope linkedin instagram youtube alert-red alert home left-quote chevron hamburger minus plus search triangle x

Americans Accept Contact Tracing to Track COVID-19, But Differ on How Much Based on Politics and Demographics

In many countries, digital contact tracing and analysis of social-distancing efforts are being used to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people are willing to trade personal privacy for the public good, others have expressed alarm at the potential for surveillance and misuse of the information. A new study examined individual-level location data from 10 primarily Democratic and 10 primarily Republican cities in the United States to learn how Americans are responding to growing concerns over government, the private sector, and public health experts using this data to track the pandemic. The study found that generally, individuals supported trading personal privacy for the greater societal good, but they diverged in the extent of the tradeoff according to their political affiliation, compliance with social-distancing recommendations, and demographics.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), New York University (NYU), and the University of Virginia, was published as a working paper on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).

“Most Americans are willing to allow mobile apps to disclose their locations to help public officials flag hot spots of COVID-19 and help slow the spread of the virus,” says Beibei Li, professor of information systems and management at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study. “Our work can help identify places where people are more likely to opt out of location data sharing so local governments can invest more physical resources there.”

Highly granular location data revealing all of the locations of a given consumer in the immediate past are needed to implement contact tracing successfully. Because many consumers are wedded to their smartphones and have widely adopted wearable technologies, such data are available to telecom providers, digital platforms, smartwatch firms, and mobile app developers. But as the public has become increasingly aware of contact-tracing efforts, public concern about surveillance and privacy has risen.

The researchers looked at two groups of data: 1) individual-level GPS location tracking data from a leading data collector that aggregates this information across hundreds of commonly used mobile applications and 2) block-level demographic data from the American Community Survey, which is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau. In total, they collected detailed location data on individuals in 20 major U.S. cities from January 1 to April 15, 2020, looking specifically at individuals’ likelihood of opting out of mobile location tracking before and after President Trump’s emergency declaration on March 13, 2020.

Based on political affiliations shown in recent national elections, the researchers rated the 20 cities as primarily Democratic or Republican, with half in the first category and half in the second. For each of the cities, the study parsed through an average of 150,000 individuals and 70 locations per individual per day, totaling 1.5 million unique locations overall. For their empirical analysis, the researchers selected a random sample of 25,000 individuals per city, and they identified each individual’s home address and assigned the demographics of the Census block closest to that address.

The study also looked at individuals’ privacy choices, social-distancing behavior, risk of contracting COVID-19, use of applications, and demographics (e.g., race, income, gender). Based on their findings, the researchers identified:

  • A significant decrease in opting out of mobile application location sharing: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, geographic areas with more Democrats were more concerned with privacy than areas with more Republicans, but after the pandemic arrived, there was a significant decrease in opt-out rates, especially among individuals in Democratic cities.
  • Less likelihood of opting out among people who practiced social distancing: People who traveled less and interacted with fewer contacts were less likely to opt out, while those who practiced less social distancing were more likely to opt out. This occurred more among individuals in largely Democratic than largely Republican cities.
  • Different trends in different populations: High-income groups, cities with higher proportions of Whites, and males were more likely to be concerned about privacy than low-income groups, cities with more diverse populations, and women. They also were more likely to opt out of location tracking.
  • Health-risk factors and density of cases influenced people’s opt-out behavior: People identified as being at higher risk of contracting the virus were more likely to choose not to opt out of location tracking. Also, cities that were hit harder by COVID-19 saw a greater decline in the opt-out rate.

“Our study identified two opposing forces with respect to Americans’ concerns about privacy,” explains Anindya Ghose, professor of business at NYU’s Stern School of Business, who led the study. “On the one hand, there was a positive relationship between willingness to practice social distancing and willingness to share location data, potentially driven by individuals’ increasingly prosocial behavior during the pandemic, that is, their desire to behave in ways that benefit others or society. On the other hand, the change in people’s opt-out behavior could also be because people have had more time at home now due to lockdown, read their data contracts more carefully, and then changed their privacy choices. Whether people are more likely to share location data depends on which force is more dominant.”


Summarized from a working paper on SSRN, Trading Privacy for the Greater Social Good: How Did America React During COVID-19? by Ghose, A (New York University), Li, B (Carnegie Mellon University), Macha, M (Carnegie Mellon University), Sun, C (New York University), and Foutz, NYZ (University of Virginia). Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. 

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the #1 academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit