People care more about how their personal data is used. But what aspects cause them most concern?

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People care more about how their personal data is used. But what aspects cause them most concern?

A blog by Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner

31 July 2019

One of the defining trends of the digital age has been a growing awareness of data protection rights. More people are becoming aware of the personal data that sits at the centre of so many of the online services we access, and realising their own rights with regard to that data.

But what aspects of data protection cause the most concern? That was one of the questions covered in our recent annual track survey, a detailed look at how people across the UK view their information rights.

It’s perhaps no surprise to see cyber security tops the list. A series of cyber attacks across the past year have not only directly affected large numbers of people, but also prompted headlines read by millions more. Both shape people’s trust and confidence in organisations storing and using their personal information.

It’s reassuring for us to see children’s privacy and data sharing also feature prominently among the public’s priorities. Both are priorities for us too, and the views expressed in the survey match what we heard in response to the consultation for our planned code of practice to protect children’s privacy online.

We know too that personal experience of data protection rights plays a key role in shaping areas of public concern. Last week I was fortunate to speak with two people who had a different perspective on data protection.

Both spent parts of their childhood in state care. Their experience of data protection law and rights was in submitting subject access requests, as they sought information recorded about them as they grew up. The records they wanted to access played an important role in helping them piece together memories and experiences from their childhoods.

It was a poignant example of how important data protection rights can be, but a reminder too that people’s direct experience of how organisations handle their personal data – good and bad – open or closed — greatly shapes their trust in that organisation.

That shines through in people’s response to our survey question about the trust and confidence they have in companies and organisations storing and using their personal information. The figure shows a slight drop from last year’s survey responses.

That fall in confidence is bad news for us as citizens and consumers. The opportunities of digital innovation rely on people trusting organisations with their data. If not enough patients trust an organisation trialling an innovative approach to health care, for instance, then the possible benefits to society of that innovation could be lost.

A lack of trust hits organisations hard too. We’ve seen a wealth of innovative ideas brought to our Sandbox project, but innovations rely on people being willing to share their data. Trust and confidence are crucial.

The law is a positive influence here, and effective oversight of the law will help organisations to realise these benefits. The GDPR requires fairness and transparency, lifting overall standards, and allowing the regulator – my office – to enforce against those who don’t follow the rules. But the survey shows there’s still more work to be done, and I’ve spoken before about the missed opportunities of organisations not fully committing to the accountability aspect of GDPR.

My office will continue to support improvements. We’ll keep offering guidance on how organisations can improve transparency and embed respect for people at the centre of their business. Because a fall in trust and confidence is bad news for the ICO too. Increasing that figure forms part of the ICO’s number one strategic goal, and it’s a goal we work very hard towards.

We’ll also keep enforcing the law. But there’s a paradox here, in that our enforcement work issuing fines or pulling back the curtain on hidden processing can often decrease trust and confidence in the short term, as people learn of poor data practice of which they had been previously unaware. That theory is supported in the survey showing the decrease in trust and confidence alongside an increase in people’s awareness of their data protection rights.

Of course, greater awareness of data protection rights is a positive and reassuring statistic. More and more people want to know how their personal data is being used by organisations, and want to be reassured it is being properly handled. We all – regulator and organisations – need to make sure we are responding to that demand as effectively as possible.

Elizabeth Denham

Elizabeth Denham was appointed UK Information Commissioner on 15 July 2016, having previously held the position of Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, Canada.


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