In 1994, a 24-year-old programmer named Lou Montolli wrote a document describing how an internet browser could store data to remember that Wile E. Coyote had ordered a rocket launcher from the Acme Corporation. This was the first ever description of a “persistent client state object” – better known as a cookie.
Cookies are used to track consumers by seeing the web pages they’ve viewed and the links they’ve clicked on. But they’re slowly being removed from the fabric of the internet.
It’s why Apple blocked all third-party cookies from Safari in 2020, Firefox has blocked some since 2019, and Google announced that its Chrome browser will start blocking third-party cookies from 2023.
For businesses, the changes won’t be affecting any first-party data, and they can still see who’s using their website and where they came from. Instead, it’s the third-party data that’s still changing – the data tracked on other websites that aren’t our own. Think of it as the data that tells you what I searched for on Amazon, or the shoes I might buy for my upcoming holiday.
Google’s Chromium blog claims that “Users are demanding greater privacy – including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used – and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands.”
But what do consumers really think about their online privacy?
1. Privacy attitudes have stayed stable over time but older generations are more conscious than others
In the past month, 45% of consumers say they’ve cleared their cookies or browser history, and a further 21% have disabled or turned off cookies in their settings.
Privacy is clearly very important to people, but concern about it isn’t something we’ve seen grow much in the past few years. Consumer attitudes are actually pretty stable.
And if we take a look even further back into our data from 2017, privacy concerns still remain steady. Things changed slightly in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – privacy concerns rose 11% after the news broke (at a time when GDPR was also front-page news), but then stabilized soon after.
So, privacy concerns may have been consistent in recent years, but they can flare up when it starts to get mainstream attention.
It’s not something people think about every day, but at certain times, can provoke a strong reaction from consumers under the right circumstances.
However, concerns can vary by generation, with older consumers being more privacy-conscious than their younger counterparts.
Baby boomers are more likely than younger generations to say they worry about how their personal data is being used and are less likely to feel in control of their personal data.
This explains why this generation stands out the most for wanting brands to be transparent about how they collect and use data, which ranks fourth in importance out of a list of 12 brand actions.
2. Consumers are turning to more privacy-minded alternatives
Consumers’ awareness of cookies and privacy has led to more privacy-focused internet browsers and services emerging. DuckDuckGo, for example, offers users a private searching experience with no ad-trackers and smarter encryption. And it’s clearly becoming popular, as use of it in the US has increased by 69% since Q2 2020.
Why such a growth, especially when attitudes haven’t changed? It appears that the majority of users of DuckDuckGo are individuals who are more likely to use ad-blockers, private browsing, VPNs, and delete their cookies at least occasionally. All told, very privacy-conscious people.
Attitudes to privacy may be stable across the general population, but consumers who are the most concerned about protecting their privacy are clearly in the market for services that protect their personal data.
3. Demographics can impact privacy behaviors
How much people care about their privacy online also depends on demographics – males and high earners are more likely to use private browsing and decline cookies.
Specific privacy behaviors like declining cookies on a website and clearing browsing history are fairly similar across generations.
Of those who do use an ad-blocker, baby boomers are more likely to use one because they don’t feel ads are relevant to them – which makes sense given they’re the least likely generation to say they feel represented in the advertising they see.
Younger generations, on the other hand, are more likely to use an ad-blocker to stop any inappropriate content being shown.
4. Opinions about cookie pop-ups are divided
Consumers react to cookie prompts in three different ways. In 9 markets, just over half say they always accept all cookies or the default settings they’re presented with when they visit a website.
Around a third say they change the settings for some or all cookie types, while 6% decline or leave the website altogether.
There’s clearly a conflict in consumers there, where some either care or don’t mind while the rest are confused.
Among the cookie decliners, their most distinctive feelings are that the pop-ups make their online experience less enjoyable – for these people the feeling of managing settings or trying to work out which ones to choose is upsetting the process of browsing too much.
The setting changers are the confused ones in the bunch. They’re most likely to feel that the relevant privacy information is hard to find, or that the information which is provided is unclear or full of jargon.
It seems that while cookie banners were designed to give more people control over their personal data, they’ve ended up being annoying, confusing, and doing little to protect privacy.
Banners are set up so that the fastest way to make them go away is just to accept all the cookies.
Finally, the cookie acceptors are most likely to not really have an opinion about them. This group feels either indifferent or empowered by cookie pop-ups, as they feel like they have more control over their data.
5. Transparency is key when it comes to data sharing
Tracking is one thing, but willingly sharing data is another.
When it comes to sharing data, around half want a clear understanding of how their data will be protected and used, as well as the assurance that their data won’t be shared with third parties.
While 61% would rather keep their data and pay for services, the remaining 39% could be swayed by free trials of services or free samples of products.
With 46% in the US wishing they knew more about how their data was being used, it’s possible that individuals may be more open to sharing their data if companies made this information more accessible – transparency is key.
When it comes to who consumers trust to protect their privacy and personal data, the public sector and government come out on top out of a list of 12 for over a third of consumers.
However, this does greatly depend on which country we’re looking at. Out of 9 markets, the US has the least trust in the government, with only 13% feeling this way. Consumers in the US are much more likely to trust healthcare and financial services.
However, consumers may be more trusting around data if companies are clearer about what they’re going to do with it.
- Consumer attitudes toward privacy are pretty stable over time. While there may be events that change attitudes a little, they’re pretty fickle. Those who are privacy-conscious are likely to always be, those who aren’t might be swayed, but only temporarily. Although attitudes are stable over time, there are generational differences, with baby boomers being more concerned about how companies are using their data.
- Demographics do matter – they show how likely someone is to be privacy-conscious, while generational behaviors around ad-blockers tell us how advertising is often missing the mark among older generations.
- Consumers still haven’t decided how they feel about cookie pop-ups – those who accept them don’t really have an opinion or think they make them feel more in control. Those who decline them all find they disturb their browsing experience. The individuals who change some of the settings appear to be the most confused, they feel the right information is hard to find or just full of jargon.
- Data sharing is a complex issue. But it appears that if consumers felt there was more transparency about how brands use their data, they might be more willing to share it.