When consumers make the decision to purchase from a company, that choice comes with expectations — from providing customer service to offering good value, or even sourcing products ethically or sustainably. A recent addition to that list of expectations is companies being good stewards of their users’ most sensitive information.
Consumers knowingly share troves of information on the sites and apps they interact with, such as their age, address, gender, name, credit card information and social security number. They also unknowingly share just as much: their browsing and shopping habits, their taste in products, who they interact with, and more.
The widespread availability of data about everyone has been a boon to companies — and digital advertisers in particular — but it has also created serious concerns among consumers about how this data is used and secured. Data privacy is now one of the principal issues facing technology companies and every company that relies on digital transactions. Some of the most significant data breaches have involved companies that are not strictly “tech” — credit reporting agencies, retail companies and travel companies, for instance.
The risks that businesses with poor consumer data protection and security face can be consequential for their reputation and their bottom line, and this is only because the risks consumers face are even greater, and are indeed severe depending on what type of information is not secure. The degree to which consumers trust companies with their data is slight because they ultimately see it as their own and not the property of others.
To consumers, data privacy is actually a more nuanced topic than one might think and not a singular, monolithic concern. According to a series of Morning Consult surveys, people think of data privacy in different ways depending on the type of online activity, and they perceive the associated risks in varied ways as well. So a company may need to tailor its communications about data privacy practices to the specific product it offers to consumers.
The security of online data is the top consideration for consumers across many forms of online activities including email, search, social media, banking, shopping and dating. In each of these cases, consumers value data privacy over the service itself or their user experience.
Consumers were most likely to express concern about downloading files from websites and allowing apps or websites to access their location data. Notably, online activities like banking, shopping and paying bills are also high on the list, highlighting worries about how financial information is used or how it might be compromised.
Entertainment options such as video games and streaming sites were least concerning to consumers, but online ads — which are central to the policy and antitrust conversation involving digital advertisers — were almost as low of a perceived risk. This may suggest a knowledge gap between what consumers understand when it comes to the intricacies of how online ads target them and what is debated in policy spheres.
The vast majority of consumers say they don’t fully understand how data moves behind the scenes: Just over 1 in 5 claim they completely understand how apps or companies share information, how online behavior is tracked, and how data is monetized.
A September survey asked 6,631 U.S. adults to explain, in their own words, what they found most concerning about data privacy in specific online situations. We analyzed more than 68,000 individual responses and then tested the top themes in a follow-up survey in October. The most common concerns related to the integrity of peoples’ finances, identity, safety, location, reputation, employment and anonymity. The perception of risk varies depending on the type of company that might lose control of its users’ data.
Concerns about finances were most acute in cases where an online bank or retailer leaked consumer information due to a breach. Concerns over identity theft are paramount if the company suffering a breach is a social media platform, search engine, email service provider or digital advertiser.
Who specifically is engaging with these online activities is also an important consideration, adding another layer to these concerns. For instance, women are 6 percentage points more likely than men to say they would be concerned about their personal safety if a ride-hailing company leaked their personal data (32% versus 26%). If a social media company suffers a breach, the top concerns among Gen Z adults are their personal safety being compromised (26%) and their identity being leaked (22%). Gen Xers, by comparison, are much more likely to be worried about their identity (30%) than their personal safety (12%).
Naturally, companies strive for growth, and an inevitable part of that process is bringing on new users. These new users are especially sensitive to the privacy and security of their data when using a service or visiting a website for the first time. To relieve data privacy concerns in this situation, control and encryption are key. Roughly 7 in 10 adults said they would trust a new website or app with their private data if they were given the option to delete or review it later. Slightly fewer said they would trust a new website or app if it encrypted their data and, where applicable, if it provided end-to-end encryption for all communications.
Because data privacy means different things to different consumers, and because those definitions shift according to the type of online activity, brands must take a more curated approach to their efforts and messaging around data privacy. Online banks and retailers, for example, should make assurances about how their financial information is kept secure, while social media platforms and search engines should focus on how they hash information so it cannot be used to identify users. Regardless of industry, consumers expect transparency in how their data is collected and what it is used for. The next era of data privacy — which in some ways has already begun — will usher in more security-savvy consumers and, as a result, higher expectations for control over how their data is collected and used.