2020 was a year of extreme upheaval – so much so that the word “unprecedented” now seems watered down and meaningless. 

There are of course the big changes – the disrupted work routine, the distance learning, and the isolation. But there are also more subtle trends emerging, and many of these will have lasting implications on our lives and our futures.  

One of these is the shift in perceptions toward online privacy. 

For years, our global research has seen internet users becoming more and more suspicious of how they’re being tracked online. In 2013, for example, 56% of people were concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy. By 2019, this had climbed to 61%.

And people had a right to be concerned; years of data breaches and scandals had dented their trust, while finally governments were bringing data privacy into the spotlight by introducing regulation like GDPR and CCPA. 

2020 has disrupted all of this. What we’re seeing now is:

Many privacy concerns have actually declined in the wake of COVID-19 – this is despite consumers being less in control of their data than ever. 

Unraveling this trend and figuring out what’s next has many layers. It requires us to look at the increasingly complex relationship we have with our data and how that’s been impacted by COVID-19. 

In China, data sharing makes a pandemic recovery possible.

Declining internet privacy concerns, while perhaps not caused by the pandemic, are linked to it. 

This is clear when we look at how certain markets – particularly those that suffered through COVID early on – experienced this shift first.

In China, for example, the number of internet users who reported being concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy dipped by 8% between Q4 2019 and Q1 2020. In Italy, it decreased by 4%. 

Chart showing internet privacy concerns dipped in early 2020.

China is a particularly interesting model to look at. The country has been able to control the outbreak and stimulate an economic recovery, in large part due to increased surveillance tactics. 

Jingbo Cui, an Associate Professor of Applied Economics at Duke Kunshan University in China, describes how this is playing out: 

“This economic recovery comes at the expense of public information sharing. Everyone has to obtain a health access QR code – smartphone software that indicates in real-time whether someone poses a contagion risk. The QR code system is a cost-effective way to allow people without contagion risk to return to work.” 

As people around the world seek a return to normality, the data-sharing model being used in China offers us a glimpse into what post-pandemic life might look like elsewhere. 

Considering how internet privacy concerns are starting to relax, a future like this feels more likely as the pandemic – and the mental burden of isolation – becomes less and less bearable. 

In Europe, data privacy attitudes relax despite (or because of?) consumer protection laws.

For European countries, noticeable declines in privacy attitudes suggest a more long-term mindset shift. Among consumers in Austria, concern about the internet eroding personal privacy went down 7% between Q4 2019 and Q1 2020. In Switzerland it declined by 9%, and in Sweden, by 12%. 

Europe has been at the forefront of consumer data protection, setting a precedent with GDPR. 

Seeing this dip in privacy-consciousness across many of its markets begs the question: why? 

The root of this is likely twofold, with a growing acceptance of less privacy colliding with the acute impact of COVID-19. 

In terms of the former, Deloitte’s consumer trends research in the UK sheds some light on one particular region. Their study reveals, even as UK internet users are more connected now than before, the percentage who are “very concerned” about how companies have been using their personal data has dipped considerably since 2018. 

Being accustomed to stronger protection of their data, many Europeans might be the first to move into a new, more open and evolved relationship with online privacy.

To explore the COVID effect, we can turn to a study by the Center for the Governance of Change (CGC). CGC found that Europeans are quite likely to give up their privacy when the benefits on the other side are things like job creation, security, and – importantly – public health. 

Health is an especially strong driver of loosening internet privacy attitudes, as our research into both COVID-19 and broader health behaviors indicates.  

Data in the name of public health

App-based contact tracing represents perhaps the most direct and obvious link between data sharing and public health during the pandemic.  

Through this system, numerous apps allow registered devices to communicate with each other via bluetooth, logging potential exposures and notifying individuals if they’re at risk. 

From a privacy standpoint, this method of contact tracing is rife with potential issues because of how sensitive data would be identified, stored, and processed. 

But that concern has hardly made a dent in public demand for these apps, whose potential benefits to public health evidently outweigh the privacy risks. 

Across 18 markets, nearly 3 out of 4 internet users support government contact tracing apps/programs to curb the spread of the virus. 

What’s especially striking is the most privacy-conscious among us are just as likely to support contact tracing apps as the rest. 

Aside from COVID-19, technology’s capacity to improve our health seems to also mediate the usual suspicions. 

Among all global consumers, 30% say they trust new technology to improve their health. This is equally as high among those with strong privacy attitudes. It’s even higher, at 35%, for those with strong privacy behaviors. 

It seems that even the most privacy-conscious consumers are able to relax their fears when they know their data is being used for public good. 

Chart showing support for contact tracing apps is high, even among the most privacy - conscious.

Looking into the future of data privacy

So what does this mean for the future of data privacy? And, importantly, how can companies leverage these shifting attitudes to harness the power of consumer data in a way that people find acceptable? 

Much of it comes down to transparency. Consumers make decisions every day based on costs vs. benefits. They’ll pay for what they deem to be “worth it” as long as they know the terms. But how do they evaluate when it’s “worth it” to give up on some of their privacy? 

Despite GDPR and other efforts, this has been wildly difficult for most people, but for companies to nurture a more sustainable data relationship with their users, this has to change. 

Emphasizing the real tradeoffs between sharing your data and attaining a personal benefit – whether it’s free wifi or the right to get into an Uber safely – is crucial. 

Ultimately, the future of data for good is rooted in a data exchange that works for everyone

Connect with consumers: a picture of devices and consumers in 2021

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