COVID-19 vs Social media apps: does privacy really matter?

Project aim

Many people are worried about using COVID-19 apps. There are several reasons behind this, including privacy issues, lack of trust and ethical concerns. Also, several media platforms play a huge role in swinging reality to scare and panic the public and steer them away from using COVID-19 apps. On the other hand, Social Media & Productivity mobile apps have lots of well-demonstrated and publicised privacy and ethical issues. However, the public are still using them, often without any apparent concerns, and even at a higher rate during the pandemic. To better understand this behaviour, this project addressed the following two research questions.

  1. How is personal data handled by COVID-19 and Social Media mobile apps?
  2. What are the key issues raised by the users of COVID-19 and Social Media & Productivity apps as evidenced in their users’ reviews?

What did we do?

We carried out a detailed, manual analysis of the privacy policies, terms & conditions, and data use agreements in COVID-19, Social Media & Productivity apps.

We also developed a python tool to carry out an automated analysis of nearly 2 million user reviews user reviews of COVID-19, Social Media & Productivity apps from both Google Play and App Store. Our user review analysis covered five main aspects – privacy, stability, advertising, user requests, and uninstallation.

Project findings

  • Many people have lots of privacy misconceptions about COVID-19 apps and that is why they have low download and adoption rates.
  • Privacy and personal data are more violated and exposed in Social Media apps compared to most COVID-19 apps.
  • COVID-19 apps usually have many severe bugs, and instability issues, most likely because they have been developed, designed, and have limited testing in a short time span.
  • To fight this pandemic more effectively, health officials and technologists need to raise awareness for the public about the mechanism of how contact tracing apps actually work in a simple way so people with weak technology background can understand.
  • Social Media App developers and organisations need to reconsider their lack of support of user privacy and data collection and misuse. Ultimately, further government regulation about ensuring user privacy and limiting collected data mis-used may even be required.
  • More research needs to be done on how to design and implement COVID-19 apps – and indeed any future public service apps that need to be rolled out quickly – in a way that allows users to be sure that their privacy is not violated.

Conclusions

  • COVID-19 apps better support privacy and better limit data usage than Social Media apps.
  • More COVID-19 app reviews talk about privacy issues, but in a positive way.
  • COVID-19 apps are much less stable and accessible than Social Media apps.
  • Health officials and technologists need to better raise awareness among individuals about the behaviour and trustworthiness of COVID-19 apps.
  • More research needs to be done on how to design and implement any future public service apps that need to be rolled out quickly.

Further reading

  • Haggag, O., Haggag, S., Grundy, J.C., Abdelrazek, M., COVID-19 Vs Social Media apps: Does privacy really matter?, 2021 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Software Engineering, online 23-29 May 2021, IEEE. Author pre-published version PDF

Project Lead

  • Omar Haggag, PhD Candidate