Analysis: a new study has found that Irish attitudes to privacy and the Covid-19 tracker app have changed during the pandemic

By Irina Tal, Edoardo Celeste, Rob BrennanMalika Bendechache, DCU and Ramona Trestian, Middlesex University

Contact tracing apps used in tracing and mitigating the spread of Covid-19 have sparked discussions and controversies worldwide. The major concerns in relation to these apps are around privacy. Ireland was praised for the design of its Covid tracker app, and the transparency through which NearForm and the HSE addressed privacy issues. The HSE provided a considerable amount of information on their website regarding the data processing, and made the data protection impact assessment of the app available to the public. The source code of the app is also available as open source and can be examined.

However, concerns about privacy were raised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties due to lack of transparency from Apple and Google's side in terms of their involvement in the tracker app. Ultimately, the question is: is our privacy being compromised? Are citizens concerned about their privacy? Are these concerns preventing them from adopting the Covid tracker app?

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, Ciara O'Brien from The Irish Times on how the Covid-19 tracker app measures u to social media apps on privacy

An online survey was conducted by the PRIVATT research project team set out to answer these questions. The survey, taken from more than 1,000 responses from people across Ireland, showed that the people are aware and protective of their privacy, but there has been a change in attitude during the pandemic. Respondents showed an increased willingness to share their personal data in the interest of saving lives. The survey revealed a huge increase in respondents, from 14% pre-pandemic to 61% now, willing to share personal data including location, contacts and medical data.

But, on the other hand, 13% of respondents are extremely concerned and 41% moderately concerned about how their data will be used. The major concern is related to privacy, followed by lack of trust in the government and institutions managing the data. Of the institutions listed, people trusted the HSE the most and the private players involved the least.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Rachel Finn from Trilateral Research on data ethics and privacy concerns around Covid-19

Feedback from the respondents shows that at least some of them appreciated the HSE efforts to address privacy concerns ove the app. 62% of participants declared that they have used or are currently using the app. The most privacy-concerned group of people are those with the lowest take-up of the app so the attitude towards privacy is an influencing factor in the adoption of the app.

Approximately 30% of the respondents stated that they are "worried that the app will be used as a tool of surveillance beyond the scope of Covid-19". They are also "worried about the implications this app will have on [their] privacy and data protection". Moreover, 42% of the respondents that used or are using the app are concerned about what happens with their information once they quit using the app.

People trusted the HSE the most and the private players involved the least.

The online survey found that the Irish population views solutions employed to control the spread of Covid-19 to potentially infringe their fundamental rights, although these solutions technically respect the specific EU guidance and are compliant with fundamental rights. From a socio-legal perspective, this exposes a discrepancy between formal legality of the digital solutions adopted by the government and people’s perception of these measures. This observation questions the validity of data protection safeguards that people do not trust, and raises the question of how we might make the existence of privacy and data protection safeguards more evident.

The feedback from the participants in the survey unveiled another theme relevant to the tracking apps in general and Covid tracker app in particular: efficiency. Respondents expressed doubts about the efficiency of the tracker app and were unhappy about the lack of communication of conclusive data showing the efficiency of the app. In order to reinforce the trust in the app and to stimulate its adoption, the transparent communication of success stories of the app and data showing its efficiency is extremely important.

The PRIVATT project is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, Lero – the Irish Software Research Centre and the ADAPT Centre

Dr Irina Tal is an Assistant Professor with the School of Computing at DCU and a member of LERO. She is the Lead Principal Investigator on the SFI funded PRIVATT projectDr Edoardo Celeste is an Assistant Professor in Law, Technology and Innovation with DCU and a member of ADAPT research centre. He is an Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Rob Brennan is an Assistant Professor with DCU, Chair of the MA in Data Protection and Privacy Law and a Funded investigator in the ADAPT research centreDr Malika Bendechache is an Assistant Professor with DCU and an academic member of the ADAPT and LERO research centres. Dr Ramona Trestian is a Senior Lecturer with Middlesex University. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ