Covid 19 coronavirus: Survey reveals Kiwis’ comfort-level with location-tracking

There’s good news for the Ministry of Health as it prepares to integrate Apple and Google’s automated contact tracing solution to its NZ Covid Tracer App:

A new survey has found that more than two-third of Kiwis now believe their phone’s location data – which keeps a record of all your movements, if enabled – can be used positively by government agencies to improve public services and emergency responses.

And some 50 per cent say they have become more willing to share location data (see full results below).

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“The ministry has been trialling the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework with a view to incorporating it within the NZ Covid Tracer app. If final approval is given, Bluetooth tracing could be added to the app as soon as next month,” a Ministry of Health spokesman told the Herald last week.

That means, if you opt-in, your iPhone or Android phone (i.e. Samsung and most other brands beyond Apple) will use its Bluetooth wireless technology to automatically track who you come into close contact with (as long as they also have Exposure Notification enabled on their phone), with notifications sent to all in the event you get a positive Covid test. It won’t be a perfect tool, by any means, but it will be another tool in the MoH’s toolbox, and one that helps fill in some of the gaps left by fallible human memory.

Other solutions are currently being trialed, including the Covid Card pilot in Rotorua, and three premises in Wellington using Bluetooth beacons for automated check-ins – no poster-scan required.

The survey of 500 New Zealanders 18 and over and over was conducted by Pollfish between September and October 1 for Here Technology.

It found Kiwis roughly split into thirds in terms of who had switched on location tracking, who had purposefully left it switched off, and who was unsure what the term meant (see full results below).

Only half were comfortable with the process of switching location tracking on or off (a process you can do through Settings on your phone, where iPhone users will see a new Exposure Notifications option has materialised).

Location tracking, or “location services”, have traditionally been used to make the likes of smartphone mapping services more effective. In Google’s case, it’s also been used to serve up ads, making some wary of the functionality (and more so after recent legal action by an Australian government watchdog, which argues Google introduced a two-step process for switching off location-tracking, meaning many thought they had disabled it when in fact they had only followed the first step. Apple, which makes most of its money from hardware and subscription services, has been a more neutral player).

Some 64 per cent believe their personal location data can be used positively by government agencies, while only 39 per cent believe the same of the private sector – although in real-life, the lines are often blurred. The NZ Covid Tracer App, for example, is driven by the Ministry of Health, but a lot of the work has been carried out by a private developer – Rush Digital – and some data associated with the app is stored on Amazon Web Services serves across the Tasman. And soon, Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications solution will likely be in the mix.

There is another twist, however – or another level of tracking.

Even if you have location services switched off in your iPhone or Android’s settings, your phone company can, broadly, track your movements. That’s the technology that was behind Statistics NZ’s people tracking project last year – which saw (then) Statistics Minister James Shaw say such “reference data” will make the traditional census redundant.

Similarly, earlier this year Privacy Commissioner John Edwards signed off on new regulation that allows emergency services to track your phone without your permission if your life is at risk (for example, you’re lost in the bush or kidnapped).

“The technology required to deliver the extended [tracking] system could be highly intrusive if misused,” Edwards said at the time, as he wrapped in tight guidelines to prevent “scope-creep”.

Location tracking is becoming more and more pervasive, from fitness tracking to cars (survey sponsor Here Technologies has most of its business in car sensors, although it also recently partnered with NZX-listed Eroad in commercial feet-tracking. The US-based company’s APAC head Kirk Mitchell, told the Herald that in the private vehicle market, his company protects a driver’s privacy by not storing data about the last mile of each trip).

The survey found convenience (40 per cent) wasn’t the main motivation to share location data.

Most (56 per cent) said they were more willing to share location data if it would help keep them and their loved ones safe or (also 56 per cent) they had knowledge of how their data was being used and stored.

On that final point, the Privacy Commissioner has been on the front-foot during the pandemic, emphasising that apps have to be transparent about their purpose; that data collected should only be used for a given purpose (that is, a cafe can’t use a check-in register for marketing); that data should be as anonymised as possible; that it should be securely stored; and that it should be deleted after a month.

Here Technology's research findings

Survey of 500 New Zealanders aged 18 and overconducted by Pollfish, Sept 29 – Oct 1 2020

34% have location on, 33% off and 33% unsure

• Those aged 25-34 are the most likely to have them on – 42%

•Those over 54 are the most likely to be unsure – 45%

• 43% of those in cities have it switched on vs. 30%  of those in rural areas, 41% of the latter are unsure

50% haven’t  changed location settings since  Covid-19, 29% have switched some or all on, just 7% have switch some or all off

• Those over 54 are the most likely not to have changed settings – 66%

•36% of those aged 18-24 have switched some or all on

•35% of those in cities have switched some or all on, vs. 18% of those in rural areas

47% are completely comfortable  switching  location settings on or off, 20% can do across some but not others, 15% think they know but  haven’t  tried, 18% have no idea

• 60% of those aged 18-24 are completely comfortable vs. just 22% of over 54s -of which 29% have no idea

•People in cities and suburban areas are 10% more likely to feel completely comfortable (48% vs. 38%)

58% say Covid-19  has made them more aware of their location data and how it  could  be used

• 65% of those in cities agree vs. 38% of those in rural areas

51% say bushfires and earthquakes have made them more aware of their location data and how it  could  be used

• 61% of those in cities agree vs. 49% of those in rural areas

64% believe their personal location data can be used positively by government agencies to improve public services and emergency responses – just 9% disagree

39% believe their personal location data can be used positively by companies e.g. Uber, Facebook, Fitbit – 40% disagree

• 43% of those under 54 agree vs. 25% of those over 54

• 43% of those in cities agree vs. 29% of those in rural areas

People are most comfortable with companies using their data for:

• Finding local stores or services e.g. restaurants, retailers – 69%

• Finding points of interest or accommodation while travelling – 53%

• Health and fitness tracking – 51%

People are most comfortable with govt agencies using their data for:

• Emergency response services e.g. managing natural disasters – 75%  (86% for over 54s)

• Monitor and control current and future pandemics e.g. social distancing, identifying hotspots – 56%  (65%)

• Bringing healthcare services closer to patients – 51%  (48%)

58% say  the use of their location data by companies or government agencies is something that concerns  them

• This rises to  63% for those aged 18-24  and drops to 43% for those aged over 54

• When it comes to the collection, storage and use of personal location data 35% are equally distrustful of govts and companies, where 34%  trust the govt more – just 10% trust companies more

• 41% of those over 54 are equally distrustful of both, 39%  trust the govt more and just 3% trust companies more

• 35% of those in cities and suburban areas say they are equally distrustful vs. 47% of those in rural areas

• 32% of people use location data daily, 25% a few times a week – just 5% say they  don’t  use it at all

• 67% of those aged between 18-34 use it daily or weekly vs  41% of those over 54

The following factors would make people more likely to share their location data:

• Knowledge of how it is being stored and used – 56%

• Knowing it is helping me and my loved ones stay safe – 56%  (this rises to 65% for those over 54)

• My life being made easier - 40%

50% believe over time they are becoming/have become more willing to share location data than they used to – just 19% disagree

• 53% of those under 54 agree vs. 39% of over 54s.

• 55% of those in cities agree vs. 35% of those in rural areas

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