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Coronavirus apps show promise but prove tough sell

In states that have their own apps, without the benefit of push notifications, the numbers are much lower: around 5% in New York, less than 3% in Alabama, and around 1% in Wyoming. Virginia was the most successful, at nearly 10 percent, spending about $ 1.5 million on public awareness campaigns.

Jeff Stover, executive adviser to the state’s health commissioner, said public health departments have been promoting testing and wearing masks for months, and commercializing coronavirus exposure apps is also essential. Virginia has “done a good job of continuously increasing the proportion of the population who join,” he said. “We had to market to different segments of society who might have different reasons for not trusting the government.”

A pilot study in California suggested that traditional advertising may not be the most effective way to get people to use technology. “By far the most effective message was an SMS to your phone,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, director of information at University of California San Diego Health. The best text message, he said, was telling people that the app could help them protect their family and friends.

From the start, one of the main concerns of the public has been the protection of privacy. After years of surveillance scandals, people are reasonably skeptical of tech companies and government, said Elissa Redmiles, an IT scientist who has studied attitudes towards Covid apps.

“They feel like everyone is constantly taking their data, and they don’t want to give up data anymore,” she says, or they worry about authoritarianism and think, “I don’t want to be watched by the government. . . “

The emphasis on confidentiality led to a sort of Catch-22. Dr. Redmiles’ research shows that people want guarantees not only of privacy, but also of the effectiveness of the technology before agreeing to use apps in large numbers. But privacy protections make it harder to collect the very data that can show how well apps are performing.

“If you can’t see if it’s effective, it’s not very convincing,” said Marc Zissman, a computer security researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called in Dr. Zissman’s lab this fall to determine the effectiveness of the exposure notification system.

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