16 September 2012


Fashionable UK 'third way' think tank Demos has released an 80 page report [PDF] on attitudes to information sharing.

The report argues that
Finding the right balance between guaranteeing the economic and social benefits of information sharing and ensuring consumer concerns are respected requires a sophisticated understanding of what people know and think about the subject. Knowing where the public stands, therefore, is vital to companies and policymakers, particularly in fields with a fast pace of change in technology and business models.
To help inform these decisions, O2 [ie a mobile phone company] commissioned the polling company Populus to conduct the largest ever survey looking into the public’s attitudes towards personal information. It is a representative sample of over 5,000 members of the public aged 18 and over, undertaken in March 2012. The results provide new insight into the public’s attitudes towards sharing information. 
Demos'  findings are underwhelming, a mixture of received wisdom, marketspeak, the trite and the obvious -
1 There is no single attitude to sharing personal information: the public has a very varied and diverse set of attitudes and behaviours
Members of the public fall into one of five categories each characterised by a distinct set of views about personal information:
  • ·Around 30 per cent of the population are ‘non-sharers’. They are knowledgeable about data protection, view much of their data as personal and take measures to protect it.
  • Around 22% of the population are ‘sceptics’. They do not have a single view about whether data are personal or impersonal – but they are sceptical about whether or not government and companies can be trusted. Unlike the non-sharers, they do not use online services much. They share data and information if the personal benefits of doing so are clear to them, but they want measures to give them simple, direct and regular control over their data. 
  • Around 20% of the population are ‘pragmatists’. They do not know all the details of how their data are used, but take small measures to protect their privacy. They prefer efficient services to complete privacy. 
  • Around 19% of the population are ‘value hunters’. They understand the value of their data, and the benefits of sharing it. They are not overly concerned about risks to personal information being shared – but want to get the most in return. 
  • Around 8% of the population are ‘enthusiastic sharers’. They categorise a lot of their information as impersonal, and subsequently are comfortable with sharing it. They are amenable to sharing more information in future, but are concerned about the ways in which those data could be misused.
These groups have often very different views about issues relating to privacy and personal information. Some general themes emerge, with variations across the different groups set out where significant.
2 The public does not have a clear understanding of how personal data or information is defined
What constitutes ‘personal’ information varies from person to person: there is no clear set of principles or ideas that marks certain types of information as personal or non-personal. However, in general terms, the public tends to consider information that might allow someone to be personally identifiable or details about their personal lives – such as phone numbers or how many children one has – as personal: 83% of the public consider health records as personal; 62% consider a landline number as personal. By contrast, the public tends to view information about behaviour – often generalisable or aggregatable – as less personal: 45% of the public believes that your current location is personal, and only 30% agree that information about the products and services you buy is personal. Different segments have highly diverse views, however: 73% of non-sharers felt that location details were personal,whereas just 12% enthusiastic sharers thought so. Similarly, only one per cent of enthusiastic sharers felt the films, books and music you like is personal information, compared with 42% of non-sharers.
3 The public is aware that personal information and behavioural data are used for commercial purposes, although understanding about what this means in practice is limited
The results suggest that knowledge about the general principles of data use is fairly widely known. For example, 85% are aware that online purchasing history data are collected and used, and 81% cent are aware of supermarket loyalty schemes. Knowledge about Gmail-based advertising is lowest, although over two-thirds (67%) of the public are aware of it. However, in the workshop, participants knew and understood less about the specific ways in which personal information is collected and used.
4 In general, the public sees only limited benefits of sharing personal information and behavioural data
When asked about the benefits to consumers of sharing personal information and behavioural data, members of the public are fairly negative. Only 41% could see the benefits of supermarket loyalty schemes, while only 19% could see the benefits of Gmail-content-based advertising, despite the fact that users can sign up to accounts for free. Similarly to all the other findings, these results mask significant differences across the segments: 71% of enthusiastic sharers compared with only 25% of nonsharers could see the benefits of online purchasing data being used to suggest future purchases.
5 People are sharing more than ever, but there is a ‘crisis of confidence’ in the way that personal information and behaviour data are being used
Populus asked respondents a series of questions about the extent to which they were comfortable with how personal information and behavioural data are being used. The highest level of comfort is for supermarket loyalty schemes: 27% of the public are comfortable with Tesco Clubcards, but only 10% are comfortable with Gmail scanning email content for the purposes of targeted advertising. Executive summary This is notwithstanding that significant numbers of people share information anyway, and expect to share more in future. Indeed, 85% of the public use store loyalty cards, despite these worries. Nearly one in two (48%) adults expect to be sharing more personal data with companies in ten years’ time (and 47% expect to do so with the government). Fewer people expect to be sharing less data with private companies (19%) and the government (15%) by 2022. The results are very similar to the range of data people expect to be sharing in a decade’s time.
6 Losing control of personal information is the most significant concern for the public
For example personal data being used without permission (80%) or being lost (76%). Scores for government data were roughly the same. Value hunters were markedly less concerned than other groups. Only 13% of this group were concerned about companies losing personal information, compared with 76% overall.
7 The public will welcome measures to give them more control over personal information and behavioural data, especially knowing what is held about them, and the ability to withdraw it if they wish.
The overall results suggest the public have some significant worries about the status quo. The public recognise that sharing personal information is important – and that there are some benefits – but there is a lot of discomfort and unease about the terms on which that is currently taking place. There was high demand for a variety of reassurance measures overall. Of particular value was the ‘ability to withdraw data’ (73%) and to ‘see what information is held on me’ (70%).
8 There is no single policy solution
Public views about personal information and behavioural data are highly varied. Unsurprisingly, therefore, measures to protect personal information did not command universal support. Educating people worked well for some groups, but not for others. No single solution works well for everyone.
On that basis the report offers several conclusions.
There is a crisis of confidence in information sharing: regulators and companies need to respond in a dynamic and flexible way that reflects the diversity of views held by the public.
Data and information sovereignty is the next big consumer issue. The Populus survey suggests that people share an increasing amount of information about themselves – and expect to share even more in the future. However, there is a crisis of confidence: the public is uncomfortable about the way personal information and behavioural data are collected by government and commercial companies. There is a danger that this loss of confidence will lead to people sharing less information and data, which would have detrimental results for individuals, companies and the economy.
The solution is to ensure individuals have more control over what, when and how they share information. Privacy is not easily defined. It is a negotiated concept that changes with technology and culture. It needs continually updating as circumstances and values change, which in turn requires democratic deliberation and a dialogue between the parties involved. Single, blanket solutions are not likely to work. Consumers are a highly diverse group, with very different attitudes towards information sharing, different types of concerns, and different degrees of willingness to share information. Some people want to share more than others, because they believe they will benefit from a ‘value exchange’ transaction. Others are happy to share a huge amount of information about themselves, irrespective of personal benefits.
As the demographics of internet use continue to expand, this diversity of opinions will also grow.
Regulators and businesses need to find a flexible, dynamic framework, which recognises the diversity of views on the issue, and consider how people can customise and negotiate their relationship with organisations, so that it is and feels mutually beneficial.
We believe that three key principles can help establish this approach to data sharing: offering informed choice, having meaningful options and elucidating the mutual benefit of doing so.