The Cost of Privacy: Understanding the Global Ramifications of Data Collection

Every person who uses the Internet has a unique digital identity, consisting of individual data points, such as their username and passwords, what movies they stream, what articles they tweet, and more. Laws like the GDPR and CCPA attempt to give people some control over their data, but it can still be challenging to understand what our digital identities consist of, how they are used, and what kind of data companies collect.

To help better understand how people perceive data privacy, especially in light of COVID-19, we teamed up with Juniper Research to survey 12,000 people in six countries: Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Our resulting Cost of Privacy report found that while consumers are surprisingly unaware of how much their data is collected, they intensely value privacy. Even benevolent causes like the containment of COVID-19 aren’t enough to merit sacrificing their data.

The Baseline: What Consumers Know about Data Collection

We’re all used to hearing jokes about our Amazon or Google devices listening to our conversations or Instagram advertisements being a little too accurate, but our data shows that people vastly underestimate the extent of data tracking.

78% of Americans don’t think consumer hardware companies like Apple, Fitbit, or Amazon track their biometric data, and 75% believe streaming services like Netflix and Hulu do not collect information about their online media consumption. People are more aware of social media tracking, but they still have a long way to go: 59% of French respondents, 52% of UK respondents, and 49% of Americans do not think social media companies are tracking their posts.

Privacy Over Everything, Even During a Pandemic

While people are generally aware of efforts to use data to track the spread of the COVID-19, they are still uncomfortable with the idea. 74% of Australians, 81% of Germans, and 84% of Americans are worried that data collection for COVID-19 containment will sacrifice too much of their privacy. Many of these respondents also worry the data will be used for purposes beyond tracking COVID-19, like curating advertisements or assisting law enforcement.

COVID-19 aside, trust in government is low. The idea that the government tracks consumer data is a concern for all respondents, especially in Germany (74%), the Netherlands (73%), and the US (70%). Respondents are particularly hesitant to share their data with law enforcement agencies—only 22% of Germans and 24% of Americans are willing to do so.

Identity Complications Put Democracy At Risk

Voting and other democratic processes require identity verification, but if the barrier to entry becomes too high, citizens will abandon the process. Of the American respondents who are not registered to vote, 14% say they avoided registering because of complications with the registration process. That may sound small, but if 14% of unregistered Americans didn’t encounter complications, it would translate into 14 million more votes—a sizable number that could impact the outcome of an election.

COVID-19 is putting additional strains on the 2020 elections, with many wondering if in-person voting will be safe. We asked US respondents how they felt, and 67% say they support the use of mail-in ballots to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Opponents of mail-in voting cite security as their number one concern.

Balancing Privacy and Innovation

Many of our interactions today happen digitally, but our understanding of identity and privacy is lagging. We leave digital footprints every time we use the Internet, yet few people understand the scope of their online identity and the extent to which government agencies and companies collect their data.

Increasing awareness is step one: organizations need to be more transparent about data collection so customers understand how their data is being collected and used. At the same time, we need to recognize that data can serve the common good—giving relevant recommendations, helping to build new technologies, or improving public health. We need to strike a balance between privacy and innovation, so users have control over their data, but companies can still build products that benefit the world.