Credit: The ODI

Nearly 9 in 10 people think it’s important that organisations use personal data ethically

Tue Nov 12, 2019
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The ODI calls on companies and governments to build trust by engaging with their customers and citizens about how they use personal data

The ODI calls on companies and governments to build trust by engaging with their customers and citizens about how they use personal data.

A new consumer survey from the Open Data Institute (ODI) and YouGov published today shows:

  • Nearly 9 in 10 people (87%) feel it is important or very important that organisations they interact with use data about them ethically.
  • 59% trust the NHS and healthcare providers to use personal data ethically – the only type of organisation trusted by over half of those surveyed.
  • Falling below the 50% mark are: central government (30%); local government (31%); banks and building societies (42%); utility providers (18%); family and friends (34%); and social media organisations (5%).
  • 44% feel that the government and regulators should be most responsible for making sure personal data is handled ethically.

The ODI’s online consumer survey reveals current attitudes of British adults towards the ethical use of personal data. The findings show that the majority of people feel it is important that data about them is used ethically, but they don’t trust most public and private organisations to do so. The full dataset is published here under an open licence.

The new survey results back up qualitative research by the ODI and the RSA: About Data About Us, published in September 2019, which explored how members of the UK public feel about data about them, what they think about having ownership or rights around it, and what kind of control or protection they feel is missing or needs strengthening. Some anonymous quotes from people interviewed:

  • “We’re relying on the companies that we use to stay credible and use it with integrity. If that’s the case, that’s why we sign up, cause we’re assuming they’re going to be responsible. If we knew they wouldn’t be, I bet none of us would say yeah”.
  • “They [organisations] should tell you. They should be transparent. And if they’re doing it covertly, what else are they doing with that information?”
  • “We’ve got to learn to be responsible online and not be so impulsive. And corporations have got to learn to be responsible and open about what they’re doing about it.”
  • “I feel like we need to be educated. Like, when I sign up to a website, when I do my banking, when I do anything on the internet, then they ask me ‘do you accept these terms and conditions? Give me your name’, I have no idea where all that’s going. I just feel like I can’t do anything unless I give my data away.”

Data ethics has become an important issue in recent years, as organisations increasingly rely on data to improve how they work and to personalise their services to their customers and citizens.

This has increased as new data sources become available and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence help them use data better. However, the rollout of regulations, such as the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and media coverage of recent events, like the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, have raised people’s awareness about their data rights, the potential for misuse of personal data, and the need for organisations to use data ethically.

Jeni Tennison, CEO at the Open Data Institute, explains the importance of the ethical use of data:

“The survey shows us that people quite rightly expect organisations to use personal data ethically. Organisations need to respond to their concerns and be more trustworthy in how they collect and use personal data. This is not only the right thing to do, it will help organisations to keep benefiting from the data they rely on and retain the trust of their customers and employees.

“Talking about using data ethically is not enough, organisations need to publicly demonstrate how they do this in order to build trust. At the ODI, we help organisations at any stage in their data journey to think about and respond to important questions, such as: ‘what biases and limitations are there in this data?’ and ‘who could be negatively affected by this project?’.”

Tim Sleap, Director of Data & Insight at The Co-op said:

“When handling customer data, it is vital that you are trusted with it, and that you do so with integrity and transparency. This is especially true of Co-op, where members and customers rightly demand that we do business the right way. We’ve used the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas extensively to help us ask the right questions, so that we’re championing a better way of doing business for our customers, colleagues and communities.”

More about the findings:

Trusts varies across organisations and sectors

The majority of people trust the NHS and healthcare providers to use personal data about them ethically (59%) and almost half trust emergency services (47%). Less than one in three people trust central government (30%) and local government (31%) to use data about them ethically, and only 7% trust public transport providers to do so. Forty-two per cent of people trust banks and building societies, but only 25% trust credit card companies and 20% trust insurance companies. Online retailers (10%), social media organisations (5%) and marketing and advertising agencies (3%) are among those least trusted. Only 34% trust their family and friends, and 14% of people don’t trust any from the list provided.

Ethical data use means different things to different people

Opinion on the type of data collection and acceptable use varies between individuals. An average of 13% of people are comfortable to share behavioural data in exchange for a personalised public service, such as social media likes or travel patterns, but this varies from 22% in the 25-34 age group to 8% of those over 55. A fifth of those over 55 did not want to share any of the data type listed with local authorities to receive a personalised service, compared to 8% of those aged 18-24.

The relationship people have with organisations makes a difference to how much they are trusted. Only 12% of 18–24 year olds trust credit card companies to handle data ethically, compared with 31% of those above 55. But this was reversed when it came to universities, with 36% of 18–24 year olds trusting them compared to 10% of those over 55.

Over half of people (52%) felt that if organisations only collect the necessary personal data to provide a service, that would indicate ethical use of personal data. Around a quarter felt that organisations providing information about any payments they receive for sharing personal data would be an indication of using personal data ethically. And 13% thought that ethical data use would be indicated if organisations share personal data with the UK government to improve public services, or with researchers to develop insights.

Demand for government regulation

Nearly half of people (44%) feel that government and regulators should have the most responsibility for ensuring data about them is handled more ethically. Eighteen per cent thought most responsibility should rest with the companies and organisations collecting data themselves, 12% thought individuals should have most responsibility, and 3% felt responsibility should lie with consumer rights organisations.