The volume and extent of digitized personal data only continues to grow, spanning everything from purchase transactions, banking and financial data, medical information and Web browsing history to those activities intended to be private or semi-private such as texting and messaging, photo and video sharing, and social networking interactions. For all the conveniences offered by today’s digitally-driven world, the risks are apparent. Celebrity photo hacks and numerous retailers’ credit card data breaches are just a few examples of headlines within the past year. 

The federal government in the U.S. is also now paying special attention to so-called “data broker” companies that aggregate vast repositories of consumer data from a variety of sources, such as purchasing histories and social media activity, without consumers’ consent. As the data is aggregated, data brokers often re-sell the information to other corporations. In May 2014, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report titled: “Data Brokers, A Call for Transparency and Accountability” that provides an assessment of both benefits and risks posed to consumers.

Because of this heightened attention to digital data, CivicScience, in early 2014, began measuring consumer sentiment toward data privacy issues via 10 questions categorized into two main areas of research: 

Voluntary and explicit sharing of personal data online

Involuntary or inferred usage and/or sharing of consumers’ personal data by corporations

At a high level, the results concluded that consumers were generally less concerned about online data privacy when they felt they were in control of the data they provided. Younger consumers overall showed less concern across the board on nearly all questions. 

Data Privacy Question

High Concern/ Strong Belief %

No Concern/ Low Beliefs%

In general, how concerned are you about your privacy while you are using the Internet?

A: Very concerned / Somewhat concerned / Slightly concerned / Not concerned at all

49%

6%

Are you concerned that you are asked for too much personal information when you register or make online purchases?

A: Very concerned / Somewhat concerned / Slightly concerned / Not concerned at all

41%

9%

Are you concerned about people you do not know obtaining personal information about you from your activity on the Internet?

A: Very concerned / Somewhat concerned / Slightly concerned / Not concerned at all

56%

6%

In general, how risky do you think it is to give personal information to online companies?

A: Very risky / Somewhat risky / Slightly risky / Not at all risky

51%

1%

The Methodology

CivicScience’s data is collected through its polling applications that run on several hundred U.S. publisher websites. Those polls are embedded on the page of the publisher and are answered voluntarily, requiring no collection of personally identifiable information (PII) and with no incentive other than for the respondent to see the results of the poll at the end. Cookie technology allows each respondent’s answers to any poll question to be appended to their unique profile in the company’s platform, thereby providing more data to be mined over time via cross-tabulation, trended views and other statistical analysis. Respondents may also opt-out or clear their history at any time. The representativeness and reliability of this technique has been repeatedly endorsed by third parties and academic leaders. 

The 10 questions involved in this particular study launched on March 26, 2014 and responses were collected through August 18, 2014 (for part one) and September 21, 2014 (for part two). Each question collected at least 12,000 responses and the data were weighted for U.S. Census representativeness for gender and age, 18 years and older. 

Part 1: Voluntary and explicit sharing of personal data online

Four questions were asked in this category to measure U.S. adults’ sentiment about general Internet data sharing and submission activities.

What we see from the data is that despite many of the recent credit card data breaches, consumers overall are still more comfortable with submitting their personal data for online purchases (see row two in the above table) than they are with even general Internet privacy (row one). This may be explained by the explicit give-and-take nature of this transaction: in order to purchase something online, you must provide a generally agreed-upon set of personal data. When we mined deeper into additional poll data collected on these same respondents (beyond the 10 questions specific to this study), we learned that those who conduct online shopping at least monthly are much more likely to say they are “not concerned at all” about submitting their personal information for online purchases than those who never shop online.

When it comes to voicing higher levels of concern across all four questions, younger adults (18–34) are fewer in number than other age groups. We also see lower concern among respondents making over $150,000 per year in all questions. We see little to no difference in gender.

Respondents who are more involved with social media sites are more likely to show less concern or view less risk with their Internet-based data practices and online transactions. 

Data Privacy Question

High Concern/ Strong Belief %

No Concern/ Low Beliefs%

How concerned are you about giving your personal information to so many companies?

A: Very concerned / Somewhat concerned / Slightly concerned / Not concerned at all

63%

3%

Do you believe that companies seeking personal information online should disclose ALL the ways the data is collected and used?

A: Strongly believe / Somewhat believe / Slightly believe / Do not believe at all

83%

6%

Do you believe that companies should never sell the personal information from their customers to other companies?

A: Strongly believe / Somewhat believe / Slightly believe / Do not believe at all

86%

7%

Do you believe that when people give personal information to an online company for some reason, the company should never use the information for any other reason?

A: Strongly believe / Somewhat believe / Slightly believe / Do not believe at all

88%

5%

Do you believe that companies, in general, keep your best interests in mind when dealing with your personal information?

A: Strongly believe / Somewhat believe / Slightly believe / Do not believe at all

56%

4%

Do you believe that companies should devote more time and effort to preventing unauthorized access to personal information?

A: Strongly believe / Somewhat believe / Slightly believe / Do not believe at all

79%

3%

Part 2: Involuntary usage and/or sharing of personal data by corporations

In this second set of questions related to corporate practices with consumers’ personal data, U.S. adults show significantly higher concern levels. Concern levels peak in areas related to lack of transparency and disclosures in how companies use personal data and how they are re-purposing or re-selling that data without the consumer’s clear consent:

As with the first category’s questions, younger adult respondents are less concerned and more trustful of corporate practices. For example, those aged 18 to 24 are 75 percent more likely than others to strongly believe that companies keep their best interests in mind when it comes to personal data.

In terms of income, we see a similar pattern across this group of questions as we did with the first group, with the wealthiest of respondents correlating to lower levels of concern.

And where we saw little gender difference in the first category of questions, here we see that men are somewhat less concerned and more trusting of corporations’ data practices than women, although the genders are in agreement when it comes to the selling of their personal data. 

How concerned are you about privacy when using the Internet?

Ages 18–29

Ages 30–44

Ages 45–64

Ages 65+

Very concerned

41%

44%

55%

57%

Not concerned at all

14%

6%

5%

5%

16,830 respondents from 3/26/2014 to 8/18/2014

 

 

 

 

Breezy Youth; Corporate Mistrust

When it comes to consumer sentiment on data privacy issues, age certainly matters. It could be argued that youth in general comes with a more optimistic plus less experienced view of the world. Or when it comes to data and the online world, younger people who have grown up knowing nothing else are more comfortable with and accepting of the risk/reward trade-offs.

You can see the age factor at work in the question at the top of the page.

It’s also clear from the data that very few U.S. adults are devoid of concern on any of these issues; across all questions, fewer than 10 percent of consumers in aggregate fell into the no concern / no worry answer groups. This suggests that consumers are paying attention and have formed fairly strong opinions.

The measurement and tracking of consumer sentiment on these issues can provide powerful guidance to help civic-minded corporations take steps to increase consumer trust and to help policymakers shape legislative proposals. This data presents an opportunity for companies to choose to show vision and leadership in delivering greater transparency and disclosures about their data practices. It also clearly calls for more research into how (and if) sentiment translates to changes in behaviors, particularly in areas where consumers feel they have choice to take their business elsewhere. 

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