Study shows more Canadians increasingly comfortable sharing data online

As the federal government prepares to introduce new private sector privacy legislation, a new study suggests a growing number of Canadians are less concerned about online privacy and increasingly comfortable sharing their data online.

The global study was conducted by Foresight Factory for Interpublic’s Acxiom and the Global Data & Marketing Alliance, which is comprised of 28 marketing associations, including the Canadian Marketing Association. The survey covered 16 countries, up from 10 in its first version in 2018. Canadian consumers were included both times, providing data on how attitudes have shifted over the past four years.

The study found that 48% of Canadians “feel more comfortable with the notion of data exchange with businesses,” up from 40% in 2018. And 26% of Canadians, up from 23% in 2018, consider themselves “data unconcerned,” which GDMA describes as: “Those who are unconcerned about online privacy in general and characterized by lower levels of concern about the sharing of personal data.”

The study comes as privacy advocates call for more protection of consumer data, and as the marketing industry remains in the midst of a years-long shift toward more data based digital marketing.

While marketing groups like GDMA are concerned about new restrictions, governments have responded by introducing—or considering—increased privacy protections, most notably Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Meanwhile technology giants like Apple and Google are making fundamental changes to give users more control of how their data is used, thereby making it more difficult to access for marketers.

The GDMA says concerns about data protection may be overstated. “While some media reports would have us believe people are more worried than ever before, the reality is more people are getting familiar with data and technology and in return concern is falling,” states Jed Mole, CMO of the IPG agencies Acxiom, Kinesso and Matterkind, in the introduction to the report, “Global Data Privacy: What the Consumer Really Thinks.”

The GDMA says its research shows that the “vast majority” of people are comfortable with data sharing if “there is a clear benefit to doing so.” Consumers are willing to share their personal data with a company they trust. This was the number one factor for Canadian respondents, followed by receiving free services and products in exchange for the data. In 2018, just 35% of Canadians agreed with the idea that data exchange is essential for the running of modern society, compared with 41% in the new study.

“This growing comfort with data exchange is likely due to the significant increase in online activities over the past two years,” said CMA president and CEO John Wiltshire. “Canadians are recognizing the benefits of online services, with more than 40% saying their online activity has increased since the start of the pandemic.”

The study also found a decrease in what it calls data fundamentalists: “Those who are concerned about online privacy and are unwilling to provide personal information even in return for service enhancement.” For the 10 countries included in the 2018 study (including Canada), 21% fit into that category today, down from 23% four years ago. In Canada, 24% of respondents consider themselves “fundamentalists.”

While the study showed growing willingness to share private data with business, Mole said the industry cannot “relax,” and must do more, because “people still don’t see themselves benefiting from data as much as companies do.”

“While we cannot pretend the digital economy does not provide growth and value to businesses (and let’s not forget their employees), it provides far more value to people than they realize,” he wrote.

One of the most significant shifts toward increased data protection for consumers came with Apple’s 2021 release of iOS 14.5, which gave users the option to not be tracked by apps. An overwhelming majority of users reportedly opted in to the service.

“Perhaps, when consumers opt out in the iOS environment, the benefits of opting in are not clear to them,” Wiltshire told The Message. “Or perhaps, in that moment when they are trying to download an app, they are making a snap or ‘default’ decision without giving much thought to the pros and cons.”

“One of the most important things that the marketing sector needs to do is help consumers understand how they benefit from the data value exchange, because there may be impacts they might not have considered,” he added.

Last year, the GDMA also released “Global Privacy Principles,” meant to provide best practice guidance to improve existing self-regulatory privacy initiatives and codes. The GDMA described them as “aspirational commitments for organizations, governments, and people to cultivate a trusted and successful commercial ecosystem.”

And last month, the CMA also released a report calling on the Canadian government to avoid the “pitfalls” of Europe’s GDPR when it introduces new privacy legislation, expected this spring. Privacy Law Pitfalls: Lessons Learned from the European Union” was based on more than 30 third-party research reports.

“While the GDPR has sparked progress in advancing privacy protections and awareness globally, it has proven after more than three years to be much better in theory than in practice,” said Wiltshire in a release introducing the study. “There are growing concerns that the law’s pitfalls are stifling innovation, overwhelming regulators and creating complexity for consumers.

“Canada has the opportunity to learn from the EU experience, and to once again be a global leader with legislation that protects consumer privacy while preserving the enormous social and economic value of data to Canadians.”

David Brown