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Data Privacy in the Digital Age

Digital Consumer Trends 2021


One of the components of our 2021 Digital Consumer Trends survey centres on Irish consumer attitudes and actions to data privacy. As consumers, we live in the era of technology and digitisation, always waiting for big brands to roll-out the newest models in their technology lines, new apps and app updates that enhance our day-to-day and the latest smart services and devices. The global pandemic has seen enhanced reliance on social media, online streaming services and online gaming as well as a focus on fitness and wellness apps. Underpinning all this is the reality that a complex data eco-system is what enables all these products and services. As a result, there has never been more of a focus on data privacy and shifting consumer attitudes to the use of personal data.


Our research this year has highlighted the following:

  • 87% of all respondents have access to at least one connected device/appliance in their homes. Smart TVs are the most popular with 61% having access.
  • Ownership of wearables has grown to 46%, up +9 pp in the past year and has been propelled by growth in smart watches.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 smartphone/fitness device owners monitor their steps, about 3 in 10 monitor heart rate and their sleeping pattern.
  • 7% subscribe to mental health apps and 5% subscribe to fitness/lifestyle/workout apps. Younger age groups are more likely to subscribe.

Consumer Concern vs Consumer Awareness

This growth in ownership of devices and connectivity in general leads naturally to consumers thinking more about data privacy and security. Consumers want to exert more control over their data and to trust that digital organisations are respecting their preferences. Emerging privacy focused technology and standards such as Privacy by Design (PbD), Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs), personal data vaults as well as an increasing focus on digital and data ethics means the consumer is more aware when it comes to the use of their personal data. Then, the backdrop to all this is increased Regulatory activity which is moving away from providing general guidance for companies and more towards enforcement for data breaches and non-compliance with regulations.

Our research revealed that awareness of Irish consumers of usage of their data by online companies has grown, with 43% stating that they believe companies they interact with online use their personal data all the time, up from 37% in 2020.

Figure 1. Perception that personal data is being used 'all the time' by online companies has increased over the last 12 months (up +6 pp).

Interestingly, we found that this awareness does not correlate with any rise in concern. In fact, concern with usage of data has halved since 2018. The proportion of respondents who were “very concerned” about companies using their personal data halved between 2018 to 2021 and 1 in 4 say they are “very concerned” this year. [Figure 2]

The decline in concern could be attributable to a number of factors:

Are Consumers fully aware of how their data can be used?

The post-Covid move towards online has made it increasingly difficult to reject the ease consumers have experienced in their day-to-day online interactions from working from home to buying online. To meet this demand, companies are focusing more on their digital platforms, simplifying processes for consumers and enhancing their data management.

The use of AI, automation and analytics, together with the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), 5g, cloud computing and edge computing will enhance consumers experiences, create efficiencies while also seeing an astronomical growth in data collection. The advantages of disruptive technologies are clear to consumers, however transparency around data use needs to catch up.

There is a clear correlation between declining concern and how much the consumer understands around the use of their data. The collection of data, (metadata, biometric, health data and more) is one element, the uses for this data is another. Companies have a powerful tool within their hands that can drive insights, create automated decision making, produce highly personalised, targeted advertising and essentially build highly detailed profiles on consumers.

Our research has found that:

Figure 3. More than three quarters of respondents accept all the default cookie settings when prompted by a website at least half of the time.

  • Those who are not concerned about data privacy are more likely to accept all default cookie settings, less likely to refuse app permissions or use browsers that limit ad tracking.
  • 21% use a specific browser that limits ad-tracking at least half of the time.
  • 26% of all respondents are in favour of tailored ads; this is higher among younger respondents. [Figure 4]

Figure 4. Overall, 26% prefer tailored ads, 39% have no preference and 29% do not want tailored ads; younger age groups are more likely to prefer having ads tailored to them.

Do the benefits outweigh the privacy challenges for consumers?

When considering the ever-increasing digital expanse and an era of consumers that are more and more switched on, we also see a trend towards services and technologies that make consumers lives easier (smart devices in homes, connected entertainment, connected vehicles), that support health and wellness (wearables that track everything from steps to stress levels based on heart rhythms, mindfulness apps, food trackers) and that support consumers daily lives (online grocery shopping that keeps a record of your usuals and tailors coupons and suggestions to your preferences, the option to have a shop receipt emailed to you which triggers notifications of subsequent sales and offers).

Our fast-paced world is triggering a shift towards opting in and signing up. As a result, data sets are becoming far more granular, richer and valuable to companies. The awareness of sharing data exists but consumers are generally lacking in information around the privacy risks associated with the interconnectedness of such data sharing and the ability for stolen data to create a replica profile to a minute level of detail (think sophisticated catfishing, and privacy threatening use of AI).

Our research has found that:

  • In order to resume normality, respondents are mostly in favour of sharing their vaccination status. 58% are in favour of sharing status with employer, 67% with entertainment facilities, 69% with event providers and 72% with holiday companies/airlines. [Figure 5]

Figure 5. Most respondents are willing to share their vaccination status via an app for various situations; under 10% strongly disagree.

  • Nearly 6 in 10 smartphone/fitness device owners monitor their steps, about 3 in 10 monitor heart rate and their sleeping pattern.
  • 7% subscribe to mental health apps and 5% subscribe to fitness/lifestyle/workout apps. Younger age groups are the more likely to subscribe.

Are consumers concerns misplaced?

Our research found that 42% of all respondents stopped using at least one social media platform temporarily or permanently in the last year. Among those who stopped using at least one social media platform temporarily or permanently, 23% did so as they were concerned about their data privacy.

While privacy concerns are cited, there are often other reasons at play such as boredom with content and a lack of usefulness for the consumer. From a privacy perspective, it is often the easy ‘win’ for a consumer concerned with data sharing and supports the consumer to feel empowered that they have limited one source, but it is not clear cut. Often, decline in one social media platform, gives rise to the use of another. Similarly, the Regulatory action with some of the key leaders in this area drives consumers to become more aware of that singular platform without the transparency of the interconnectedness at play across platforms, technologies, entities and affiliates.

What does the future of data privacy look like?

The GDPR along with emerging internet regulation and a focus on digital trust and safety is paving the way to more privacy centric thinking. The move away from ‘tick the box’ compliance with such regulations is clear, and a step closer to privacy culture: consumers understanding what benefits them when they share their data but also realising that their data is invaluable and as such, an economy.

Organisations that do not move with this wave to progress to full transparency and embed data privacy into operations as standard could find themselves in bidding wars for data. In this digital era, consumers want to share data with brands that they trust and for organisations, Data Privacy will be a business enabler and brand differentiator.

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