Data privacy is on our minds like never before. In a relatively small amount of time many of us have gone from carrying out our daily transactions in person to conducting them digitally. We pay energy bills online, conduct banking online and interact with friends online. All these transactions leave a trail of data as we go. While it is often promised that this data is secure, it can also be used by undisclosed third parties.
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The data can be used to improve the service we get but we also know that sometimes it is used to sell us more things. While almost all of us carry out digital transactions, few of us have got to grips with what it actually means to let our data out of our sight.
Companies usually won't share our identifiable data without telling us but many of them profit by either using it themselves or selling it off to others, whether aggregating it with other people's data or after performing some analysis on it. By combining different types of data, such as spending and GPS location, these companies gain valuable insight into our habits.
We are moving towards a world in which companies could spring up with offers to manage our data on our behalf. But how much would you be willing to pay to keep that data under lock and key?
In our research project, we asked a group of participants to think about different types of data, including physical location GPS, electricity bills, broadband usage, mobile phone bills, loyalty cards, internet browsing, demographics, social networking and bank statements. We wanted to find out whether people see these different types of data differently and how concerned they were about their information being protected.
Fear and function
62 participants commented on what they thought about different pieces of personal data and whether each was associated more with security concerns or potential benefits. Security is an important theme when people talk about their physical location, mobile phone bills, social networking or bank statement data. Participants were recorded as saying that data like this was personal and should only be shared when it is necessary to do so.
But it appears the benefits far outweigh security concerns when it comes to loyalty card data. Participants said there are benefits in sharing this type of information and even that the information contained on loyalty cards "can't harm me or anyone". When participants said they wouldn't share personal information on social networks, their motivation appeared to be related to security.
Participants also said that some of their data was connected to other types of information. The types of data considered to be linked to others included physical location, broadband usage, internet browsing history and social networking data. Bank statement data was not considered to be particularly linked to other types of data, which might mean that people don't see bank statement information as reflecting any other aspects of their life other than spending money. But that is not necessarily true. Our bank statement data can be used in conjunction with other types of data such as electricity bill information to better understand our habits and even predict our future behaviours, such as the likelihood that we will pay off a credit card bill.
How much are they willing to pay?
Next we asked another group of 60 participants to imagine they had a new smartphone app that would collect their personal data from transaction such as those described above. They were given the choice of either paying a fee to stop their data being shared anonymously with the company that provided the service in the first place or to us the "free" version of the app, which would allow their data to be shared. They could decide to pay either £20 or between 50p and £15 in cases where they would agree to a fee.
Of those 60, 70 per cent said they would pay up to £20 to protect their bank statements and digital communication history data but only 20 per cent of participants were prepared to pay the same amount to protect data from household bills, online purchasing history, internet browsing and search history, and demographic information.
Again, the lack of security concerns about loyalty card data shows through, with 70 per cent of participants saying they would not be willing to pay anything to protect this kind of data. There was also limited interest in paying to prevent web browser search history or demographic information being shared. Again, protecting social networking info is a priority, with 80 per cent of participants willing to pay to have it kept private and 50 per cent agreeing to pay the £20 premium.
Which data is most important?
A third study involving a questionnaire filled out by 853 participants reinforced the findings of the first two. People were found to be willing to pay the highest amount to protect bank statement data, which was shown to carry a value of up to £30. The second most important type of information seems to be social network profiles and history and physical location data. People care a little bit less about broadband bills, mobile phone bills, loyalty cards, internet browsing history, demographic information, but they will still pay something to protect it.
The least important data for our participants was electricity bill data – which is surprising, given how much value energy companies are leveraging from this kind of data about individual behaviours at home.
All in all, the figures show that participants were well aware of the security risks associated with their bank details. However, loyalty card information or household energy data does not seem to be a particularly significant concern for most, even though this type of information is used by shops and energy companies on a very granular level to make decisions that affect our purchasing on a daily basis. It's a sign of the changing times we live in that many appear to see this as a benefit.
Anya Skatova is a Research Fellow at the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute at the University of Nottingham. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.