Federal Employees Say They’re Willing to Download COVID-19 Apps But Few Agencies Have Them

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The results of a Nextgov/Government Business Council survey offer insights into how federal employees feel about apps to trace coronavirus exposure and their agency’s efforts to track infections.

Federal employees responding to a recent survey said they are not required to participate in or are unaware of contact tracing programs at their respective agencies, according to the Government Business Council, the research arm of Nextgov parent company Government Executive Media Group.

In a survey of 688 federal employees, many respondents said their agency was also tracking infections among employees and, while few agencies deployed apps for this process, only a quarter of federal employees said they would not download an agency-built app if it was made available.

More than half of respondents—58%—also indicated they would be willing to download an app created or managed by their state and local governments for the benefit of the broader community, not just their colleagues. 

Eight months since federal agencies were instructed to send their employees home en masse to counter the spread of COVID-19, the virus continues to spread unchecked throughout the country. As of Sunday, the U.S. had reported 12.2 million cases—adding new cases at a rate of more than 180,000 per day—and recorded more than 250,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map.

Public health experts have advocated for a number of tactics to stem the spread of the disease, including using contact tracing methods—including exposure notification apps—to alert individuals who might have come in contact with an infected person. While these methods have shown promise, they require the participation of a large percentage of a given population, which is a difficult task in a time when few trust apps or governments to handle and secure their private data.

While 20% of respondents said their state or locality had instituted some kind of app for tracking COVID-19 cases, more than a quarter said their area had not. However, 51% responded that they didn’t know if their local government had released a COVID app.

For federal employees whose local governments had created an app, 58% said they had downloaded it or planned to download it.

Of those living in areas that have not launched an app, 47% said they were somewhat likely or very likely to download one if the opportunity arises. But 9% said there were somewhat unlikely to download such an app, while 33% said it was very unlikely.

Federal agency policies on exposure notification apps appear to be either unclear or nonexistent, according to respondents.

Only nine respondents said their agencies have issued guidance either allowing them to download exposure notification apps on their government-furnished devices while 28 said their agencies prohibit such downloads.

But 44% of respondents said their agency has not released a policy or guidance about downloading exposure notification apps to government-furnished devices. Another 50% said they weren’t sure if such guidance existed.

Some federal departments are tracking COVID-19 exposure at the agency level, such as NASA, which maintains a database of confirmed cases reported voluntarily by staff.

According to respondents, some 42% of federal agencies are tracking employee exposure in some way. Of those, only 3% said the program used a smartphone app, either on a personal or government-furnished device. More than 60% said their agency program does not use an app, while 32% were unsure.

Fewer than 20% said their agency does not have a tracking program, though 2% said they expect their agency will do so in the future. Another 37% said they did not know if their agency had such a program in place.

For those who said their agency did not have an app, 50% said they would download it if one becomes available. A quarter of respondents said they would not download the app and 24% said they were undecided.

But the presence of an exposure notification app did not seem to make returning to the workplace more appealing for most. About one-third  said they would feel somewhat more comfortable (21%) or much more comfortable (11%) returning to the workplace with an exposure notification app in place, about two-thirds said they would still not feel comfortable (35%) or would feel no difference in comfort (32%).

A little more than half of federal respondents said their job included some kind of direct involvement with their agency’s IT, including IT executives, operations and administration and project management. Most of the responses from IT and non-IT employees tracked along the same percentages, save for a few.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, IT employees were more likely to be aware of whether their agency had released guidance on downloading exposure notification apps, with 53% of IT employees saying, definitively, that their agency does not have an app, compared with 35% of non-IT employees; and only 39% saying they weren’t sure, compared with 61% of non-IT employees.

While the percentage of IT and non-IT employees against downloading agency-built exposure notification apps was close to the same—24% and 26%, respectively—tech-focused employees were more likely to be in favor of such apps, with 55% saying they would download compared to only 46% of non-IT employees.

Federal IT employees’ comfort with returning to their physical workspaces was also more likely to increase with an agency-built exposure notification app in place, with 37% saying they were somewhat (24%) or much more comfortable (13%) compared to non-IT employees’ 27%—17% and 10%, respectively.

However, federal IT practitioners seemed just as likely to be conspiracy-minded about COVID-19 and exposure notification apps as their non-IT-focused counterparts, as shown in comments offered with the survey.

“Apps, whether on Government or personal mobile devices, never fully disclose the information collected, how that information is used, or provide users with options to provide only select information,” one respondent wrote. “The ‘background’ processes of such apps are hidden in legal User Agreements that are vague, confusing, and written only for legal interpretation. Much of the ‘background’ process collecting information is hidden behind ‘corporate proprietary’ veils that demonstrate untrustworthiness.”

Others felt it was their civic duty to use exposure notification apps where available.

“While I think there will be false positives, I also think it is imperative for everyone to know if they have been potentially exposed to reduce spread,” a federal employee wrote. “Tracing apps are the single, best way to accomplish that.”

“All for it,” another said. “My personal belief is that if you get COVID you have a moral responsibility to let anyone and everyone you could have come in contact with know.”

Some agency employees merely disagreed on the importance of contact tracing, while others were fully supportive. When asked whether they would download an agency app if provided and optional, some added:

  • “Contact tracing is a meaningless exercise.”
  • “Contract tracing is a significant part of controlling spread.”
  • “Contact tracing is not consistently performed.”
  • “Contact tracing is important to protect health and safety of employees.”
  • “Depends on what it does and whose [sic] under surveillance.”
  • “Hell no!”
  • “Hell yes!”

Trust was also a major issue:

  • “Don’t care to be tracked—invasion of privacy.”
  • “Don’t trust any of mentioned entities.”
  • “Don’t trust apps.”
  • “Don’t trust leadership at my agency.”
  • “I do not want to be tracked any more than I already am on my devices. While I’m glad these apps exist, I will not participate with them.”

For those who were on the fence about downloading an agency app, choice was a major factor.

“Ability to opt out—or better, to need to opt in—data sharing by category—contacts, location history, photos, texts—with confidence that it truly was limited,” one person said.

“Airtight legal protections to limit data collection to just that specifically needed for tracking coronavirus exposure anonymously—such as they do with FEVS,” another said, referencing the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, an annual anonymous survey of federal employees conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

When asked, respondents were concerned with the collection of a number of specific types of data, including 52% who were worried the app would collect political history data; 54% said location data; 56% said biometric data and 57% said contact information. However, a staggering 81% said financial transaction history was a major concern.