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Middlesex University-backed study discovers changing attitudes towards personal data during COVID-19 pandemic

Thursday, 11th of March 2021

A significant number of people who wouldn’t normally share data are happy to disclose personal information if it helps to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has found. The survey of more than 1,000 people in Ireland by the PRIVATT Research project discovered the attitudes of people towards privacy and sharing personal data have changed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers found 61% of people were willing to share personal data such as age, location and medical details to the country’s COVID-19 tracker app compared to just 14% before the virus emerged. Dr Ramona Trestian, a Senior Lecturer in Computing at Middlesex University who was part of the research team, said: “People are changing their attitudes towards privacy in the interest of saving lives.

“If the data is helping to save lives, then people are willing to share the data.” In total 62% of participants said they have used or are using the COVID tracker app. The project’s principal investigator Dr Irina Tal said results show “that the people are using the app out of a community sense, for the greater good”. This research found however that 13% would be extremely concerned and 41% would be moderately concerned about how their data is used. Approximately 30% of the respondents would be worried “the app will be used as a tool of surveillance beyond the scope of COVID-19”, and worried about “the implications this app will have on [their] privacy and data protection”.

Responses highlighted a lack of trusts in governments and institutions managing the data asides from Ireland’s Health Safety Executive. “There are still concerns that apps will use this data outside the scope of COVD- 19,” added Dr Trestian who took her PhD at Dublin City University which led the research. “These are general concerns around the world and not just in Ireland with people wondering how long will this data be stored and whether it will be destroyed after the pandemic. “Another concern is the efficiency of the app, and the lack of information.

“People are being encouraged to download these apps but if more details were provided about the app’s efficiency then more of the population would engage. “Performance statistics will help people engage because they know it is working and having a positive impact.” The PRIVATT project is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, Lero – the Irish Software Research Centre and the ADAPT Centre. The research team also includes Dublin City University professors Dr Irina Tal, Dr Edoardo Celeste , Dr Rob Brennan and Dr Malika Bendechache.

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