Results of a cross-national online survey on public opinion towards Covid-19 contact tracing apps (CTAs) reveal that approval rates in China exceed those in western countries by a significant margin. Our guest authors Genia Kostka and Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla of Freie Universität Berlin analyze what drives citizens’ acceptance of CTAs in different political contexts.
Contract tracing apps (CTAs) have been widely employed to combat the global spread of Covid-19. As of January 2021, the MIT Technology Review’s database on CTAs documented a total of 49 CTAs in 48 different countries. While use of this type of tool has been widespread, the specific approach taken has varied between countries.
China was the first country to try a CTA as a means of curbing the spread of the virus. In February 2020, it rolled out its “health code” app nationwide as a means of controlling people’s movements. Developed by internet giants Alibaba and Tencent, users access the app through Alipay or WeChat and input their phone number, full name and ID number.
After registration, the health code used self-reported travel histories or any suspect symptoms and automatically collected travel and medical data to assign users a red, yellow or green QR code. Whereas a green code gave users unhindered access to public spaces, a yellow code indicated that the person might have come into contact with a person with Covid-19 infection and therefore has to be confined to their homes or an isolation facility. A red code was assigned to users infected with the virus.
As public spaces like shopping malls can only be accessed with a green QR code, installation of the health code app became to all intents and purposes mandatory in China, resulting in broad adoption of the app among Chinese citizens. The app received criticism, however, for collecting a wide range of information on central servers including personal information, location, recent contacts, health status and travel history.
By contrast, Germany launched its “Corona-Warn-App” much later, on June 16, 2020, after a long-drawn discussion about data privacy issues and the related design of the app. The download of the app in Germany is voluntary, and information exchange takes place locally on people’s phones without collecting information on a central server about personal identities or locations.
In the United States, rather than a top-down approach by central government, states and local governments cooperated with Apple and Google to develop local apps. The apps rely on Bluetooth technology and use is voluntary. They do not collect personal information and do not upload information about personal encounters to central servers.
While the biggest vaccination campaign in history has started, triggering hopes for a foreseeable end of the pandemic, experts believe there will not be a return to anything like normal life until late this year. Meanwhile, CTAs remain a decisive factor in fighting the pandemic, but their efficacy depends heavily on people’s acceptance. An online survey conducted in June 2020 examined public opinions towards Covid-19 tracing apps in China (N = 2201), Germany (N = 2083), and the United States (N = 2180). The survey results show that approval ratings in China surpass those in western countries, with 80 percent of Chinese, 41 percent of German and 39 percent of United States citizens strongly or somewhat accepting CTAs. An analysis of what drives citizens’ acceptance of CTAs in these countries reveals the following significant findings.