Consumers not interested in privacy? Think again

filesWould you be surprised to hear that a manager at the Information Commissioner’s Office, the very organisation that was set up to “uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals”, has said that consumers only like to complain about privacy if companies mess up?

At the IAB’s Mobile Engage conference, and ICO manager of business and industry, Dave Evans, said: “Consumers are not interested in privacy but they become interested if you get it wrong.” He added: “If you give them what they want but you get it wrong in the process then they [consumers] start to care where the data came from.” However, having taken a look at the ICO’s own research it seems like Evan’s isn’t even a little bit right!

A 2011 survey commissioned by the ICO showed that: almost nine out of ten respondents were concerned about the way personal information is handled, with 89% of respondents being concerned about protecting people’s personal information. This makes protecting personal information the second highest concern in terms of social issues raised in the survey, and it has been every year since 2007. There was also a high level of concern from respondents (59%) that they have lost control over the way their personal information is collected.

In a 2008 survey, again commissioned by none other than the ICO, 53% said they were not confident in the way that organisations, such as banks, councils and the government, look after your personal details. 72% said that they felt powerless over how their personal information is looked after, whilst 77% said they worry more about the safety of their personal details now than they used to and 85% said they were now much more aware of the value of personal information.

Those figures seem pretty concrete in terms of consumers having concerns about privacy, but they just complain when something goes wrong, right? Well, it appears that consumers are taking proactive steps to protect their privacy: 88% said ‘I have started to regularly check my bank statements’, 85% said ‘I now refuse to give out my personal details as much as possible’, 81% said that they now shred their documents, 45% changed their PIN number/s, 36% said they had asked organisations to remove their details from their databases, and 31% said they has taken information about themselves off internet social networking sites, blogs or forums.

Our own research showed that the majority of the British public are concerned about their online privacy (68%) with nearly a quarter (22%) saying that they are very concerned. People are more likely to say that consumers are being harmed by big companies gathering large amounts of their personal data for internal use (46% than they are to say that this enhances consumer experiences (18%).

Well, that seems pretty conclusive. From the ICO’s own research it appears that consumers are very concerned about the way that their data is used and how it impacts on their privacy, and are willing to independently take proactive steps to protect themselves. Perhaps it is internal attitudes like this at the ICO, that helps explain why in cases like the Phorm scandal, Google Spy-fi, and even the row over phone hacking, that the ICO has been accused of burying its head in the sand.

In an age where our personal information is becoming more and more valuable as a commodity, it is clearly sensible that people shouldn’t share information unless it is absolutely necessary. However, businesses also need to reassess how much information they request from consumers as it is when large amounts of data are collected that it becomes more likely for it to be open to abuse.

UPDATE: We have received a response from the ICO, stating that the comments “have been taken out of context”, commenting that:

“There’s no suggestion from the ICO that consumers aren’t interested in privacy, and our own research has shown year after year that this is a key issue for consumers. It’s important to see this comment in the context it was made, in a discussion of targeted advertising. Prior to the discussion, one of the panellists had suggested that in the context of digital content, privacy is not the most exciting topic. The point being made was that while no-one would suggest consumers’ main focus when browsing a website is privacy, those concerns come to the fore if consumers think their information is being used in the wrong way. The issue being raised was that while some businesses might not see privacy as a priority, the consequences of handling personal data poorly is reputational damage, as well as potential enforcement action.”

Whether taken out of context or not, it remains that Evans’ comments don’t quite inspire the confidence in privacy that we would hope for from the ICO.