Research Highlights

Fighting for the Greater Good: New Research Shows Democrats and Republicans are Willing to Trade Personal Smartphone Data to Combat COVID-19

Headshots of Anindya Ghose and Chen Shuo Sun

Researchers at NYU Stern School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Virginia find that willingness to share individual-level smartphone location data to help health officials track the spread of the Coronavirus diverged along the lines of social-distancing compliance and demographics, but largely not according to political affiliation in the US

Americans are ready and willing to share their location data for the greater good, and the administration should not delay in paving the way for firms to process and analyze this massive set of data.

Researchers at NYU Stern School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Virginia find that willingness to share individual-level smartphone location data to help health officials track the spread of the Coronavirus diverged along the lines of social-distancing compliance and demographics, but largely not according to political affiliation in the US

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, digital contact tracing and analysis of social distancing from smartphone location data have emerged as two highly effective non-therapeutic tools used in many countries to mitigate the spread of the virus. Despite concerns about privacy and surveillance, new research from NYU Stern School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy (CMU) and the University of Virginia presents some of the first evidence that both Democrats and Republicans alike are unified in their willingness to share their individual smartphone location data to help combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

In a new paper entitled, “Trading Privacy for the Greater Social Good: How Did America React During COVID-19?,” NYU Stern Professor Anindya Ghose, along with Stern PhD student Chenshuo Sun, CMU Professor Beibei Li and CMU PhD student Meghanath Macha, and University of Virginia Professor Natasha Zhang Foutz analyzed individual-level location data containing more than 22 billion records from 10 Democratic and 10 Republican political-leaning cities in the US, in an effort to understand how Americans responded to the increasing concerns that government authorities, the private sector and public health experts might use their personal data to track the spread of COVID-19. Key takeaways from the joint research include: 
  • While people in Democratic cities were more privacy-concerned than those in Republicans cities before the rise of COVID-19 crisis, there was a significant decrease in data sharing “opt-out” rates after the Coronavirus began making headlines in the US, and this effect was more salient in the Democratic cities than in the Republican cities studied.
  • The practice of social distancing and willingness to share location data were positively correlated. In other words, individuals who practice social distancing also were more likely to share their location data and vice versa.
  • High-income groups, cities with higher proportions of white residents and males were more likely to be concerned about privacy than low-income groups, cities with more diverse populations and women. These groups were also more likely to opt out of location tracking.
  • People identified as being at higher risk of contracting the virus were more likely to share their location tracking data. Additionally, cities that were hit harder by COVID-19 saw a greater decline in the opt-out rate.
  • The March 13th national emergency declaration by President Trump decreased the probability of a person opting out of location tracking.

“Physical contract tracing is not sufficient to effectively fight back against this virus and government leaders must do more to enable digital tracing in partnership with the private sector,” said Professor Ghose. “Americans are ready and willing to share their location data for the greater good, and the administration should not delay in paving the way for firms to process and analyze this massive set of data.”

“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,” noted Professor Li. “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.”

“Our study suggests that the reduced opt-out is potentially driven by individuals’ increasingly prosocial behavior during the pandemic,” explained Professor Foutz. “as we have controlled for the concerns for personal health risks and we have also seen a positive relationship between willingness to practice social distancing and willingness to share location data.”