There had already been growing privacy awareness among consumers for some time, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 seemed to be the incident that really pushed data handling practices into the mainstream. A mounting body of evidence has suggested that the average person is now very aware of how companies track their online behavior, and a new report from DataGrail indicates that they will cease doing business with companies and services that they do not trust.
The consumer sentiment survey was conducted in July and included about 4,000 respondents divided between the United States and several countries in Europe. The results are compared to a similar survey conducted in 2020, and both concerns about personal privacy and the actions people are willing to take to protect it are on the rise. Online behavior is also increasingly trust-driven, with consumers opting out of sharing their data with companies that are not transparent about how it is handled or that have been busted in the past for mishandling it.
Privacy awareness now overwhelmingly common, online consumers demand respect
Privacy awareness is more common than not, with 60% of consumers now reporting that they are concerned about their online privacy and 53% feeling like they do not have control over their online identity. 35% said that they are “fed up” with personal data being used to feed targeted ads, and 25% say that the process is “creepy” to them.
While consumers are very much aware of how companies track their online behavior at this point, 34% say that they feel “overwhelmed” in trying to manage things like privacy settings and opt-outs for the wide variety of websites and apps that they use. While legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been a major boon in terms of privacy awareness, it has also created issues such as “cookie fatigue.” The mandatory banners that prompt website users to customize their cookie settings are helpful, but seeing them at every website has prompted some end users to simply skip through them as fast as possible given the cumulative time the process takes.
Privacy awareness appears to be most acute as regards the sale of personal data to third parties. 75% now say that they are aware of companies they do business with selling personal information to third parties, up from 62% in the 2020 survey. 85% say that they would like to know exactly which businesses are tracking online behavior and how the data they collect is being used, and 79% expect to have control over how businesses can use the data they are collecting.
Specific actions taken to protect personal data are on the rise along with this surge in privacy awareness. A little over half of the respondents now say that they keep on top of deleting cookies and browser history, and unsubscribing from unwanted emails. About one out of three uses an ad blocker, manages their marketing preferences for the sites and apps they use, and makes use of OS and browser “incognito” modes. Just under a third are using password managers and “do not track” features (such as the settings now baked into Apple’s iOS), and just under a quarter are making use of multi-factor authentication to secure logins.
It was once widely believed that people would be happy to give away personal information in exchange for “free” services, but that model increasingly appears to have hinged on a general lack of privacy awareness. As people become more aware of how their online behavior is tracked, they also become more willing to pay a premium for privacy. 67% of respondents said they would pay up to $100 per year to protect their privacy, and 2% said they would go so far as to pay $5,000 per year.
While that 2% willing to pay a chunk of their annual salary to protect their privacy may be an outlier, there is a general trend of shoppers with higher incomes taking their business to brands that they trust with their personal data. About three out of four respondents said that they would stop shopping with a favorite retailer if they found out that their personal data was not safe, and also said that they are willing to pay “a few dollars more” to shop with a brand that they can trust. And 80% said that transparency about personal data handling and tracking of online behavior was a factor in their brand loyalty.
Privacy is a bipartisan desire, but online behavior can change due to political developments
Privacy awareness and desire for strong data protection cuts across all political divides, but specific political developments can drive changes in online behavior. The DataGrail study asked respondents in the US how the overturn of Roe v. Wade impacted their privacy awareness and ways in which they used online services. 66% of Millenial and Gen Z women said that they plan to change or delete period tracking apps since the decision was handed down, and half have already done so. There are also increases in use of incognito mode in browsers, opting out of sharing data with the government, deleting data, scrubbing online profiles, and using fake profiles and documentation since the change to the law.
Regardless of political stripe, over half of all respondents also say that they believe privacy is a human right and should be backed up by protections from federal law.
Respondents also expressed their biggest privacy concerns, and are most concerned about their email being hacked. Also high on the list are excessive collection of data for personal profiles by companies, data breaches, mishandling by the government (or third party contractors) and sale of personal information to data brokers.#Privacy awareness is now more common than not, with 60% of consumers reporting that they are concerned and 34% say that they feel 'overwhelmed' in trying to manage how companies track their online behavior. #respectdataClick to Tweet
Based on the information gathered, the report’s recommendations include increasing transparency into data handling practices, respecting consumer preferences (particularly not continuing to email them from different addresses after they have opted out), and making privacy policies and the methods by which to exercise privacy rights clear.