The University of Otago’s Dr Raymond Xia looks at how privacy concerns and misguided complacency are seriously affecting crucial contact tracing efforts

In order to increase the public’s use of Covid-19 tracing measures, we must first work hard to reduce their concerns about where their personal information will end up.

Our research has found New Zealanders’ reluctance to use government and business contact tracing measures is primarily driven by privacy concerns and the misguided feeling of complacency.

The privacy concern results in some people providing false or incomplete information to businesses, which in turn results in a serious threat to our public safety.

Previous research indicates customers are willing to exchange their information with products or services. People are not unreasonable.

Their rising concern about privacy is because of increasingly personalised advertisements and widely reported data scandals.

Customers have become wary of the potential risk of disclosing their personal information. This perceived vulnerability triggers uncooperative behavioural intentions towards contact tracing requests.

In order to reduce people’s concern about privacy, contact tracing requesters need to increase people’s trust.

Take the hospitality sector. Establishments need to be careful with requiring personal information from customers and businesses need to demonstrate their competence in managing customers’ data.

People are less worried about their privacy if they have more confidence in a business’s ability and professionalism in data management.

This includes employees’ attitudes towards contact tracing when requiring people’s information, how much employees know about the data collection process and the data management afterwards, and the transparency in procedure and policy.

Only the cognitive trust (knowledge) works over the affective trust (emotion) in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government can also encourage people to cooperate with contact tracing through strong data protection policy and regulation. We found that if the government does so, people feel safer to disclose truthful information for contact tracing.

Act now even if you don’t think there’s an immediate threat

It’s human nature that if a threat is not immediate, we do not take it seriously. For example, every smoker knows smoking is not good for them but they don’t often quit as they find there is no harm to them right after having a puff.

The new variant of Covid-19 has been in the community and we know little about it compared to the original version of coronavirus.

This is not another horror story; we just tend to forget what happened in the past. The lockdown in 2020 was successful but was at a huge cost.

Very few businesses were able to operate normally.

Spending on hospitality fell 95 percent compared with the previous year, not to mention the layoffs and business closedowns. No one expects another lockdown, but we now don’t even bother to scan a code.

Contact tracing is a very useful measure for mitigating the transmission of infectious diseases. It can track the spread of the virus and warn people who have been in proximity with the infected individuals.

However, if there are not adequate people to cooperate, the system does not work effectively. It requires at least 60 percent of the population to record where they go.

There is no such thing as ‘back to normal’

The last thing I want to say to my fellow New Zealanders is that there is no such thing as ‘back to normal’.

I know all of us hope we can conquer Covid-19 thoroughly and go back to ‘normal life’, that is, what it was before.

However, the human being’s evolution history teaches us there is always an updated normal.

Think of 9/11 and the airport security check. The security check prior to boarding was simple before 9/11 but became much stricter afterwards.

It takes much longer, and we sometimes have to remove shoes and belts. But we have accepted it. It does not mean there will be a threat on every plane. Even though the risk is extremely low, we still do the security check, and no one rejects it. We have accepted it as ‘normal’.

We need to do the same in this pandemic. The virus is not going away permanently, it will always come back in disguise like the variants from South Africa and Britain.

Hence, cooperation with contact tracing, along with washing hands, will be, and should be in our daily routine.

Life with contact tracing and increased personal hygiene will be soon our normal. So please accept it and adapt to it. 

Dr Raymond Xia is a lecturer at the University of Otago Business School and has conducted research on public willingness to use and trust contact tracing systems.

Leave a comment