Public concern about data use remains high, according to survey

New survey collated 2000 UK adults’ perceptions of data uses

An illustration created by the Living With Data team

Living With Data was a research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, aiming to understand people’s perceptions of how their data is collected, analysed, shared and used. 

Led by Professor Helen Kennedy, from the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, the Living With Data team carried out a survey of 2000 adults in the UK to assess people’s attitudes to data, at the end of 2020. 

Using web platform Qualtrics, the team recruited and administered the survey to a sample of nationally-representative adults, with additional boosts of people born outside the UK, LGBTQ+ people, and people in receipt of Universal Credit, to ensure that underrepresented voices were present in the research. 

Featuring questions on personal characteristics, internet usage, awareness of data uses, general attitudes to data uses, trust in institutions’ data uses, attitudes to specific public sector data uses in the BBC, DWP and NHS, and concerns about data uses in comparisons with other concerns, the Living With Data research found that:

  • Public concern about certain data uses remains high, when compared with other, everyday concerns, like migration or local crime. People are mostly concerned about data being used in unfair ways and commercial companies profiting from personal data that was originally intended for health or social purposes, for example. But concern about one type of data use is low: personal data being used to manage Covid-19.
  • Context is a defining factor when it comes to public attitudes to data uses. Data uses in some contexts, like on social media, are more concerning than others, for example those related to health. There are also differences in attitudes, depending on the type of data use. For example, people are much more concerned about commercial organisations profiting from personal data, or organisations tracking when, where and how they log on, than about their health data being used to manage Covid-19.
  • People want to know more about data uses, but the people who know the most are the most concerned. People who are more knowledgeable about data uses are more likely to have negative attitudes towards them. People also want information about what happens to their data – in its absence, they often imagine the worst.

With the findings from the Living With Data survey, Professor Kennedy and her team sought to inform policy and encourage change in data practice. 

“Clear communication about existing and future data uses is needed,” said Professor Kennedy, “especially where such uses go beyond what was originally intended. The public, especially those who are negatively affected by data uses, should be consulted about data uses and how they need to change, on a case-by-case basis.

“One challenging finding from the survey is that some trust issues go beyond the type of data use. Instead they result from attitudes to organisations or sectors more generally. To address data trust issues, fundamental changes that go beyond data uses and practices are needed.”

The research concluded that change must happen and data practitioners and policymakers need to consider not engaging in data practices that consistently concern the public. 

Read the full report and find out more about the Living With Data project.

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