Americans’ willingness to adopt a COVID-19 tracking app

The role of app distributor


  • Eszter Hargittai University of Zurich
  • Elissa M. Redmiles Max Planck Institute for Software Systems
  • Jessica Vitak University of Maryland
  • Michael Zimmer Marquette University



app adoption, covid-19, tracking app, app distributor, survey


The COVID-19 global pandemic led governments, health agencies, and technology companies to work on solutions to minimize the spread of the disease. One such solution concerns contact-tracing apps whose utility is tied to widespread adoption. Using survey data collected a few weeks into lockdown measures in the United States, we explore Americans’ willingness to install a COVID-19 tracking app. Specifically, we evaluate how the distributor of such an app (e.g., government, health-protection agency, technology company) affects people’s willingness to adopt the tool. While we find that 67 percent of respondents are willing to install an app from at least one of the eight providers included, the factors that predict one’s willingness to adopt differ. Using Nissenbaum’s theory of privacy as contextual integrity, we explore differences in responses across distributors and discuss why some distributors may be viewed as less appropriate than others in the context of providing health-related apps during a global pandemic. We conclude the paper by providing policy recommendations for wide-scale data collection that minimizes the likelihood that such tools violate the norms of appropriate information flows.

Author Biographies

Eszter Hargittai, University of Zurich

Eszter Hargittai is professor and holds the Chair of Internet Use & Society in the Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich. Her research looks at inequalities in Internet use with a special focus on differences in people’s Web-use skills. She is editor of Research exposed: How empirical social science gets done in the digital age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

Elissa M. Redmiles, Max Planck Institute for Software Systems

Elissa M. Redmiles is Faculty Member & Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems. She leads the Safety & Society research group, which focuses on understanding and mitigating inequities that arise in users’ digital safety-related decision-making processes and experiences. She is also the Founder & Principal of Human Computing Associates, a research consulting firm.

Jessica Vitak, University of Maryland

Jessica Vitak an associate professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research evaluates the privacy and ethical implications of big data and develops tools to help people make more informed decisions when using new technologies and sharing sensitive data.

Michael Zimmer, Marquette University

Michael Zimmer is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Marquette University. His work focuses on digital privacy, Internet research ethics, data ethics, and the broader social & ethical dimensions of emerging technologies.




How to Cite

Hargittai, E., Redmiles, E. M., Vitak, J., & Zimmer, M. (2020). Americans’ willingness to adopt a COVID-19 tracking app: The role of app distributor. First Monday, 25(11).