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The psychology of privacy and security in digital health contract-tracing

   Centre for Applied Psychological Science

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  Prof P Van Schaik  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

”In the big battle between health and privacy, health is likely to win hands down.” (Harari, 2018, p. 96)

Contact-tracing apps have been and are being developed, for example, to combat communicable diseases such as COVID-19. The benefit of these apps is that, if used effectively, they can reduce the spread of communicable diseases. However, design flaws in app design may raise privacy and security concerns in potential users; these concerns can be barriers to an app’s acceptance and consequently its use. In addition, health app uptake and engagement are also contingent on users’ beliefs about the seriousness of the health threat. For instance, with Covid-19 we have witnessed a great deal of scepticism in terms of the consequences from becoming infected.  Therefore, this research investigates users’ response to privacy and security design in digital (app) contact-tracing, while also taking into account health-related factors such as perceived vulnerability to disease. A new model of digital contact-tracing acceptance will be developed and tested empirically, with implications for design and based on the technology acceptance model, self-determination theory, COM-B and psychological health promotion models such as the health belief model. The results will clarify how design factors together with health-related factors affect acceptance and to what extent.

The project has three stages. Stage 1: review of existing work (including an analysis of health contact-tracing apps, with a focus on privacy, cybersecurity and health-related factors) and consultation, with stakeholders focusing on security and privacy. Stage 2: development and testing of a theory-based acceptance model of digital health contact-tracing through a progression of empirical experimental studies. Stage 3: development of design and policy recommendations for digital contact tracing with stakeholders.

 This work is original, as currently there is a lack of systematic research theoretical and practical underpinnings into security, privacy and health-related factors together in digital health contact-tracing. The work is significant, as it will produce a theory-based behaviour acceptance model to inform app design and related policy. Built on relevant existing evidence and theory, the work will be rigorous through the appropriate use of qualitative and quantitative research designs, procedures and analysis. The work will be conducted in collaboration with contacts with stakeholders in public health and infectious diseases that the project leader has.

The project supports the university research strategy Teesside 2025 by addressing an interdisciplinary challenge that contributes to national health priorities (, with potential for impact in terms of the design of digital contact-tracing and public health, built on rigorous model-based research. The project contributes to the Centre’s themes of Cognition and Decision-making as well as Health and Well-being and to the Department’s applied-research capacity through a piece of research with theoretical substance and practical application.

This research aims to bridge the gap between theoretical research and applied practice by providing evidence-based solutions to a real-world problem in digital health. The research contributes to knowledge that is relevant to digital contact-tracing in the academic community and beyond to provide a significant benefit to the public, practitioners, policymakers and the wider community. The research provides psychological knowledge and perspective through partnership and collaboration with stakeholders. The project contributes to research-informed practice by providing guidance for designers and policy-makers to enhance the acceptance of digital health contact-tracing.

Entry Requirements

Applicants should hold or expect to obtain a good honours degree (2:1 or above) in a relevant discipline. A masters level qualification in a relevant discipline is desirable, but not essential, as well as a demonstrable understanding of the research area. Further details of the expected background may appear in the specific project details. International students will be subject to the standard entry criteria relating to English language ability, ATAS clearance and, when relevant, UK visa requirements and procedures.

How to Apply

Applicants should apply online for this opportunity at:

Please use the Online Application (Funded PHD) application form. When asked to specify funding select “other” and enter ‘RDS’ and the title of the PhD project that you are applying for. You should ensure that you clearly indicate that you are applying for a Funded Studentship and the title of the topic or project on the proposal that you will need to upload when applying. If you would like to apply for more than one project, you will need to complete a further application form and specify the relevant title for each application to a topic or project.

Applications for studentships that do not clearly indicate that the application is for a Funded Studentship and state the title of the project applied for on the proposal may mean that your application may not be considered for the appropriate funding.

For academic enquiries, please contact [Email Address Removed]

For administrative enquiries before or when making your application, contact [Email Address Removed].  

Funding Notes

The Fees-Paid PhD studentship will cover all tuition fees for the period of a full-time PhD Registration of up to four years. Successful applicants who are eligible will be able to access the UK Doctoral Loan scheme to support with living costs. The Fully Funded PhD Studentship covers tuition fees for the period of a full-time PhD Registration of up to four years and provide an annual tax-free stipend of £15,000 for three years, subject to satisfactory progress. Applicants who are employed and their employer is interested in funding a PhD, can apply for a Collaborative Studentship.
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