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Online privacy trends

Paul Jarvis, co-founder Fathom Analytics

Written by Paul Jarvis

Published on: March 15th, 2020

While most of the global economy is facing huge suppression and unemployment, Big Tech is benefitting from our new behaviours.

With the help of a qualitative research company, I ran an “online privacy survey” with 1,500+ respondents to get a sense of how people thought about their personal data, data privacy and the governments and big corporations that collect and access that data.

I’ve written a broad article on what the survey means for digital privacy, but here are the specific findings (you can view the whole report here, personal data has been scrubbed from it).

  • 88% of people believe they are moderately to extremely familiar with the topic of digital privacy.
  • 94% of people are moderately to extremely concerned about their digital privacy.
  • 92% of people feel they have zero to some control over their personal data being collected and shared online.
  • 93% of people feel it’s important to protect their digital privacy and personal information.

Online advertising and social media platforms were by far the least trusted entities online:

  • 96% of people assumed their personal data was being collected on any site they interacted with on the internet.
  • 83% of people believed that advertising companies “followed them around” the internet, and targeted them based on content they type into things like social media posts, reviews, email content and private messages.
  • 98% of people assumed that mobile apps collected geographic locations, and tracked their movement.
  • 71% of people assumed that Internet of Things devices (like Echos or Google Homes) were always listening and recording what they said.
  • 74% of people believed that their own government was collecting and using their data without their knowledge.
  • 45% of people believed that their health/medical information was being shared between doctors and insurance companies via their phones.
  • 74% of people thought that Amazon could accurately predict what they’d buy next.
  • 41% of people believed their bank collected and shared personal financial details with advertisers and credit companies.

And now for what consumers thought companies and governments should be doing about digital privacy and personal information:

  • 88% of people felt that tech companies have a duty to protect any/all data and privacy of their users/customers.
  • 43% of people have been the victim of an invasion of privacy from data leaks, being doxxed or companies not protecting their personal information. 18% were not sure if they had been the victim of an invasion of privacy or a data leak.
  • 38% of people were not very confident that they could ever achieve any sort of privacy online.

This survey was done in 2019, and tech giants didn’t fare well in the news in 2019. There were dozens of antitrust investigations, new privacy laws enabled around the world, and we saw a general distrust for companies that gave us “free” software, but then sold our data to make their shareholders rich. Part of why Fathom exists is because it's a privacy-focused Google Analytics competitor, with a focus on simple website analytics and privacy-focused web analytics.

And then 2020 happened, and a global pandemic took over the headlines. This was a reversal of fortunes for these big technology companies, as we instantly had to rely on them to connect us through video calls, social media, streaming, grocery/food deliveries and everything else. Now they’ve built tools to track us and the spread of the virus (not necessarily “bad”, but worrisome if the personal data is attached to this and then breached) and requesting a delay in privacy laws, saying they cannot comply with deadlines.

While being able to connect, share, and track the spread of a virus are undoubtedly for the good, we cannot forget that these companies thrive on our personal and private data to stay in business. And while they can be used as a tool for good, they are simply that: a tool. If a tool is no longer needed, it can stop being used. Or replaced with something better.

Outside of a pandemic, there are steps we can take. We can use privacy tools to protect us and our data. We can pay for and support companies who value our privacy and make money through selling software, and not selling data. We can support and lobby our governments to provide further digital and consumer protections (ex: CCPA and GDPR are good first steps). And finally, we can stay vigilant and speak up against the biggest offenders, who treat our personal information like a commodity they can buy and sell.

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