Over the last decade many aspects of daily life have gradually shifted online.

For many, online financial and personal health records have been the default for years, while for younger millennials and Gen Zs, storing and accessing private information online has always been the norm.

Every so often, when news of data breaches reaches the front page, an increasing portion of consumers are given fresh cause for concern about the risks to their own personal data. The real risk may be even greater than we know, as one study suggests that an online hack occurs every 39 seconds.

But beyond nefarious activity, consumers are also apprehensive about data that’s being collected through legitimate means.

64% of internet users say they’re concerned how their private information online is being used by companies.

And, it’s not entirely clear how we can protect ourselves when sharing data is often the cost of doing business online.

As society grows ever more comfortable with virtual doctor’s appointments, fitness classes and remote work, private information spreads across a greater number of online platforms leaving us arguably more vulnerable than ever.

So, as our online exposure increases, how have consumer concerns evolved?

Privacy concerns are high, but not universal.

Throughout the world, privacy worries online have grown steadily in the past few years, and in response governments have enacted measures to protect the public through policies like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California.

Even so, around 6 in 10 consumers worldwide still say they’re concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy.

Privacy concerns have increased

While this sentiment has remained high and relatively stable in mature markets like APAC and Europe, it’s increased the most in emerging markets like Latin America, the Middle East and Africa – in line with the growth of smartphone ownership and online activity in those regions.    

Concern for personal privacy online isn’t equal across all age groups, however. For example, in most markets, older generations are the most apprehensive about large company’s access to their online data.

In North America, nearly three quarters of 55-64s are concerned about how private companies use personal data, while in Latin America this concern is shared by 88% of 55-64s.  

Some are actively trying to protect their data, while others aren’t. 

Measures we can take to protect our online privacy are complicated, especially when we understand the vastness of our potential online exposure, and the few safeguards we have once our data is uploaded.

In the first quarter of 2020, 98% of internet users said they visited a social network in the previous month, 83% used an online directions site or app, and 73% used an internet banking service.

These actions, like most free online services, typically request or require the exchange of personal data, like ongoing location tracking, financial records, or other personally identifiable information.

It can also be hard to know exactly how to protect ourselves. Services like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), can encrypt our online activities, but even in APAC and MEA where this behavior is most common, only about one third of internet users say they’ve used a VPN in the prior month.

VPN activity is also least common in older generations, who are most worried about their privacy; 55-64s around the world are 50% less likely than average to have used a VPN in the last month.

Much more common is the use of private browsers, like Google’s Chrome Incognito or Microsoft’s InPrivate. Over half of users globally used a private browser in the last month, and the number reaches as high as 63% in MEA and Latin America.

Yet, as recent lawsuits show, even these are at risk of corporate data collection.   

So it’s understandable that some consumers feel a sense of hopelessness toward their personal privacy online. According to Pew Research, over 4 in 5 Americans say they have little to no control over the data that companies, and governments collect.

Contact tracing may face hard obstacles.

As opposed to the business-as-usual attitude some have adopted around safeguarding the use of their own data, contact tracing offers consumers a unique opportunity to test the limits of their anonymity online – and the public’s control over their personal information.

In order to fight an invisible disease that may spread before any symptoms appear, healthcare officials around the world are urging consumers to cooperate with contact tracing efforts, and download location tracking apps to help curb the spread of the virus.

But at first glance, consumers’ privacy fears may outweigh their fear of the virus. 

Respondents in the U.S. and UK  are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they’re more anxious about their personal privacy given the prospect of contact tracing apps than they are about the coronavirus.

Privacy concerns greater in U.S.

Therefore, years of trepidations around sharing information with large companies, compounded by high levels of distrust in authority amid the pandemic, may make it hard for contact tracing apps to attract a significant enough population of users to make an effective difference.

In both the U.S. and UK, just over 25% of respondents said they’re more concerned about the virus than they are about their personal privacy. It’s a surprisingly low portion, especially considering 57% of internet users in these countries are either very or extremely concerned about the COVID-19 situation within their borders.

However, this doesn’t mean that contact tracing is a lost cause from the outset.

While 4 in 5 consumers in the U.S. and UK say they have privacy concerns related to contact tracing, the biggest issue faced by contact tracing apps may actually be a lack of awareness. 

Increasing awareness and igniting discussion is key

Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. and UK were either unaware of the mechanics around how contact tracing works, or unaware of contact tracing in general. The portion of uninformed citizens is highest in under 24s and over 55s.

Furthermore, a recent webinar by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) claimed that while half of consumers in America were willing to download a contact tracing app, they were much less likely to do so when the government or large corporations were involved in the data collection.

So, even though privacy concerns currently outweigh coronavirus fears, there’s still an opportunity for contact tracing efforts to succeed by playing to the altruistic nature of local communities, allowing individuals to have greater control over their own data, as well as educating consumers about what contact tracing means and how it can benefit their communities.

Contact tracing efforts can benefit from focusing on addressing the privacy fears most likely to keep consumers from taking part. 

Whatever the case, it’s clear privacy concerns are the largest barrier standing in the way of contact tracing efforts and will no doubt reignite public discussions of whether big tech companies and governments should have control over our personal data.

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