Changing attitudes to data privacy
Digital Consumer Trends 2020
Published: 21 October 2020
10 minute read
Our 2020 Digital Consumer Trends survey explores the impact of macro trends on consumer relationships with digital devices, content and the wider connectivity landscape. In recent years, the conversation around data privacy has grown following the advent of GDPR and major instances of data misuse. COVID-19 catapulted the conversation to the front of the agenda, and has acted as a catalyst, increasing the deployment and variety of data gathering. What remains to be seen is if it will have a permanent impact on consumer attitudes to data privacy.
This year’s research revealed that:
- UK consumers have become less concerned about the use of their data: in 2018, 47% of respondents stated they were ‘very concerned’, this has now halved to 24%.
- Data sharing with respect to health and fitness remains relatively low, with just 30% of respondents owning a fitness band or smart watch.
- As of May 2020, 58% of respondents had a smart TV: data generated here includes apps downloaded, alongside programmes and ads watched.
The UK consumer appears to be relaxed, in general about data privacy, and seems content to share data online with a growing range of companies. Over the last year, the quantity and quality of data shared by UK consumers has increased – people own more devices, which capture more types of data. We expect this trend to continue over the next year.
Whilst there continue to be multiple stories about misuse of data, excessive data gathering, and data breaches, the majority of consumers appear unperturbed. Indeed with every year UK consumers appear to be less worried about the use of their data by online companies.
We do not foresee a fundamental reset in consumers’ relationship with data; they do not seem eager to wrest back control and ownership of ‘their data’. They are unlikely, en masse, to micro-manage permissions for every website they visit and every app they download, but they may instinctively swat away any pop-up menu offering personalisation of cookies. Finally, we do not expect that 2020 will be the year in which most citizens start to read all terms and conditions assiduously.
Over the coming months, as countries continue to coexist with COVID-19, citizens may be inclined to trade greater degrees and types of surveillance for the ability to resume slices of normality. Such as being able to watch a match in a stadium, in exchange for thermal camera scans and health passports. Or being able to take family to a pantomime, as a camera scans for compliance with face mask mandates. Or even wearing a fitness band to work, to provide an early alert of COVID-19 infection, whilst still asymptomatic.
Consumer concern about data sharing should continue to decline
In recent years, UK citizens have become less concerned about the use of their data by online companies. In 2018, almost half of UK adults reported that they were ‘very concerned’ about the use of personal data (see Figure 1). By mid-2020, concern had lessened: the proportion who were ‘very concerned’ had halved to 24 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion of ‘fairly concerned’ grew from 33 per cent to 50 per cent, and the proportion who declared themselves ‘not very concerned’ rose to 23 per cent from 15 per cent.
Declining levels of concern about the use of data has happened during a period in which UK consumers are likely to have been exposed to news reports about inappropriate use of consumer data online on a massive scale, with millions of individuals potentially affected. (See also here.)
We expect concern to continue to decline. One reason for this is familiarity and acceptance. Overall, UK citizens appear to value the benefits this brings: they would be reluctant to trade the inconveniences of being offline for the disadvantages of being online.
Consumer understanding of online data sharing may not be increasing
Declining concern about data privacy might also be due to a lack of understanding: the mechanisms via which data is uploaded, processed and shared online may be unfathomable to most users.
The majority of digital users may not be able to comprehend the process via which information such as browsing history, location and device used could be shared instantly with hundreds of third parties.
Most mainstream applications, from e-commerce to social networks, require personal information, such as mobile number, to be able to participate. Yet, in 2020, only 40 per cent of phone owners stated that they shared their phone number online, but 60 per cent of adults use WhatsApp weekly or more frequently. This cleft suggests that a sizeable proportion of users may not comprehend fully what data is being shared.
Figure 2 shows the types of information phone owners believe they share with organisations online and how this changed between 2019 and 2020.
The pace of change of understanding for some aspects of data sharing has been slow or non-existent over the last four years (see Figure 3). Those cognizant of sharing photos has remained largely unchanged, at between 22 per cent and 23 per cent. The proportion answering ‘I don’t know’ has remained fairly constant throughout at about a sixth of respondents.
Consumers are likely to share more types of data with third parties, generated by more devices
Over the next decade, UK consumers are likely to accumulate dozens more connected devices per home, following the pattern set over the past 10 years. In 2010 just 18 per cent of citizens had a smartphone.
Connected health ownership remains relatively low, with 30 per cent of respondents owning a fitness band or smart watch (for information on adoption of fitness bands and smart watches between 2015 and 2020, see Figure 4 in The connected home: Just getting started). As these devices become more sophisticated, and collect more data sets, they may become integrated into national health systems as a way of monitoring health levels and encouraging healthier lifestyles. Smart watches can capture heart rate (and, as a result, quantify recovery time post exercise) , and the latest models can also analyse heart rhythms and measure blood oxygenation levels. (Fitbit, Apple)
The connected entertainment category is likely to be a further source of data generation. As of May 2020, 58 per cent of respondents had a smart TV, up from 24 per cent in 2015 (for further information on consumers’ access to connected entertainment devices, see Figure 2 in The connected home: Just getting started).
Connected TVs generate multiple commercially valuable data sets. These include data on programmes watched, apps downloaded, and other devices in the home (the TV can scan for other devices it may need to connect to). Ownership of smart speakers has surged to 29 per cent in 2020 (in 2015 this category was nascent). Smart speakers may submit sound files to the cloud for analysis, with human agents occasionally listening in.
Consumers will share richer data sets
UK consumers are likely to share increasing volumes of images and video, in ever higher quality, as camera lenses and sensors improve.
Cameras are available in a widening range of devices, such as smart doorbells, which enable footage of neighbourhoods to be shared. (See also here) Other types of security cameras are likely to proliferate. Demand is likely to grow as devices become easier to self-install, connect to networks, and power.
Consumers are likely to continue using social networks, most likely with growing frequency
Social media usage on phones has increased every year since 2017. About half of respondents (48 per cent) were using social media on a daily basis in 2017, 51 per cent in 2018, 52 per cent in 2019 and 60 per cent in 2020. The spike in usage in 2020 may have been driven by lockdown – a combination of the need for news, as well as the obligation to communicate digitally rather than meet in person – but the overall trend has been consistent since 2017.
Over the past couple of years, there have been multiple high-profile boycotts of social networks, linked to well publicised news stories. None of these appear to have led to large scale, sustained departures from social networks. This may be because the stories are not interesting to the mass market; they may also be too complex to comprehend.
Consumers will generally not read terms and conditions
Figure 4 below shows reported rates of reading terms and conditions since 2018 – in 2020, a mere seven per cent state that they never accept them without reading them. The proportion of those who admit to ‘sometimes’, ‘almost always’ or ‘always’ accepting them without reading them has increased slightly each year reaching 81 per cent in 2020.
COVID-19 may catalyse the deployment of more types of data gathering
Governments around the world are balancing continuity of consumer and business activity while keeping people safe. There are multiple technological solutions that could assist in this task.
Thermal cameras, for example, can detect elevated temperatures which may indicate having COVID-19. Mask wearing can reduce the risk of infection by others. Machine vision technology can be used to identify individuals not complying with mandates to wear masks. Both approaches could be regarded as an invasion of privacy, if those with a temperature or not wearing a mask could be identified. But, identifying an individual who could otherwise become a super-spreader, would be a highly positive outcome.
Data privacy – where do we go from here?
Society is a mesh of rules, each of which is a negotiated compromise. When consumers are online they may cede data. They often receive services in return. Understanding the fairness of that trade-off is likely to become increasingly challenging for consumers. Attaining the perfect trade-off may become increasingly challenging – but ever more vital – for online companies and their regulators.
Regulation however needs nuance. Rules needs to be as sophisticated as technology is complex. For example, data that stays on the device is not inherently safer than data sets stored in the cloud.
Attaining the right balance of data privacy is also complicated by the increasingly global scale of online companies that collect data, and the national or regional remit of regulators.
Companies that handle online data should consider three forms of regulation: by government (national and regional), of themselves, and of peers with which they may exchange data.
When circumstances change, rules may need to flex, and co-existence with COVID-19 or any coronavirus is such a moment. As long as COVID-19 constrains our ability to gather in person, citizens may wish to trade a greater degree of monitoring, if, for example, this enables them to watch their team in a stadium, watch a concert indoors, or go on holiday. In exchange for this, people may well accept an array of monitoring, from temperature scans to location tracking.
All changes to data privacy resulting from COVID-19 should be temporary. They should revert back as soon as is appropriate. That said, the status quo is not always ideal in the long-term. There are important debates to be had about the benefits to deeper data relationships between formerly separate institutions and their data sets. Should governments gather health data more proactively and on a wider scale, using devices such as fitness bands or smart watches to get a far more accurate view of the state of the nation’s health than would otherwise be possible via occasional GP visits? Should these data be shared across borders to enable more robust analyses to be done? For example, heart rate patterns for fitness band users across all of Europe could be analysed to identify early signs of COVID-19 infection among the asymptomatic.
With every year, more data will be generated from more devices. And with every year the precision of policies on data privacy will need to become more refined and resilient. Data privacy will continue to be a core discussion among companies and their regulators and deservedly so.
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