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Your personal data may be Big Tech’s most profitable product. It also may be one you would be willing to pay them to stop selling.

Sep 8, 2021

The latest GroupSolver study shows that most digital consumers are concerned about their personal information being collected and sold. Almost half are willing to pay social platforms to make it stop.

Your every online move before, during, and after reading this article is most likely being recorded by technology companies as a matter of regular business. Every day, as you read, watch, click, like, and share, your interactions are monitored and stored by technology companies. These data points can create a detailed profile about you that not only includes the most obvious information such as your name and phone number, but also your interests, personality, and insecurities. This valuable data is then traded, bought and sold by tech companies, making it the backbone of their profitable business.

Online users’ personal data can be sold for advertising, used by governments to stop crimes, or for companies to increase workplace productivity. And with sharing and selling of personal data come questions about equity, risk and insecurity. According to the Data Dividend Project, 90% of a users’ data will be exposed to cyber theft or unauthorized access, and less than half of that data will be secure. The selling and exposure of our personal data can result in identity theft, overly personalized news feeds that further entrench our existing opinions, or just the unsettled feeling of knowing a stranger has access to personal details about our lives.

Surprisingly, many users are unaware of or do not understand their data rights, the ways their data is used, or the laws surrounding them. We sought out to uncover digital users’ voices and opinions on this topic. How much do they know about data privacy issues? How much do they value their own personal data? Our study gathers thoughts from 200 digital users about their personal data knowledge, concerns, and perspectives.

Younger vs Older: Awareness of data privacy varies across age groups

Note: In the course of the survey, we shared the following definition of data rights and privacy with our audience.

Data rights refer to your ownership of the information you generate when using the internet. Data privacy refers to having control over how your personal information is collected, shared, and used on the internet.

Prior to reading the definitions of data rights and privacy, 62% of respondents say they were at least somewhat familiar with the topic. Those under the age of 35 are most familiar with data rights and privacy (67% are familiar), while those 50 years and older are the least familiar (59% are familiar). Still, most people are aware of the topic.

Those who are at least somewhat familiar with data rights and privacy get their information about the topic from a variety of resources. The most popular source of information, interestingly—but not surprising—enough, is Google. 86% of respondents get their information about data rights and privacy from Google, one of the largest and most dominant companies in information technology and data collection.

Younger and older people tend to find their information from diverse sources. Respondents under the age of 35 often investigate data rights and privacy from the specific website they are interacting with. 93% of them indicate that they get information about data rights from the company’s “About” page on their website. Younger people are also more likely to get information “From what their friends tell them” (73%) and from social media (83%). On the flip side, respondents over the age of 50 read about the topic more generally. 83% of them claim that they “Read articles about computer security”, revealing they do not pay as close attention to specific policies laid out on the websites they use.

Survey opinions about where they get data rights and privacy information

Collection and distribution of personal data concerns most digital users

73% of respondents are at least somewhat concerned about websites and apps collecting and distributing their personal data. Respondents who are more familiar with data rights and privacy are typically more concerned. 80% of those who are familiar indicate that they are at least somewhat concerned about the collection and distribution of their digital data. Only 60% of respondents who are unfamiliar show the same concern. This positive correlation between familiarity with the topic and concern with it appears to say that the more we know about data privacy and security, the more concerned we are about personal data exploitation.

Concern level for those familiar vs unfamiliar with data rights and privacy

Cookie policies create confusion and insecurity among users

Unless you have stayed away from the Internet in the last few years, you’ve probably received an “Accept Cookies” button pop-up when you enter a website and an invitation to read their policy, which, let’s be honest, many of us probably ignore. The cookies are small files that are sent to your device and allow the site to retain information about you, such as the pages you have visited in the past or the accounts you log into. This allows the website to provide a more tailored experience and relevant content for you. But to some people, cookies raise a flag about possible collection of personal information they are not comfortable with.

Graph showing digital users tendencies to accept or decline cookies

We asked respondents whether they typically accept or decline permission requests such as cookies. 47% make their decision depending on the company, app, or website and 81% of these respondents’ decisions are based off the company’s reputation or previous experience with the company. Many respondents from this group are willing to accept “If [the website] is clear about when and how [my data] will be used, and whether it will be shared” (76%).

38% of respondents typically accept cookies and grant companies, apps, and websites permission to collect their data. Most of these respondents make this decision “…to access the site” (84%) and “…thought [they] had to in order to use the app” (73%). Some companies will not allow users to access their site without accepting cookies. However, most sites do not require this decision; Users can still access most websites without accepting cookies. Other internet users accept cookies “To get a more accurate, customized experience” (63%). Accepting cookies allows users to benefit from some conveniences such as saving the items in their shopping cart or receiving relevant links. This benefit, for some users, outweighs the potential risk of exposing personal information to websites.

Question: Why do you typically give companies, apps, and websites permission to collect and use your data?

Survey responses about accepting website cookies

A small minority of users disagree; 12% of respondents typically decline cookies and deny companies, apps, and websites from collecting their data. Most “Do not trust it” (76%) and “Don’t want data stolen” (72%). These users are often “Scared that the wrong people get it” (64%) and “…do not know their intentions with [their] personal data” (62%). The cookie policy on a particular website should ideally answer these concerns, however, policies can sometimes be deceptive and confusing.

Users are uncomfortable with the personal data Google collects and shares

For a specific example, we took a closer look at Google and how its data policy is perceived by its users. We found that less than half of Google users are familiar with the kinds of data Google is collecting from them (42%). Many users may not take the time to read the lengthy privacy policy, or do not fully understand what they are agreeing to.

In our study, we shared some details from Google’s privacy policy with respondents. We included the types of data they may collect (e.g., name, phone number, purchase history, emails written and received, search terms) and that Google may share this information if they have “good-faith belief” that the information is “reasonably necessary” to meet any applicable law, enforce their Terms of Service, detect and prevent fraud, and more. After presenting these details to Google users, 58% of them indicate that they are uncomfortable knowing that Google may collect and share this data.

This discomfort is not shocking, as 71% of respondents overall say they are not comfortable sharing personal information such as their emails and phone number with Big Tech companies.

Question: Which kinds of personal data are you NOT comfortable being shared with Big Tech companies?

Information that digital users are not comfortable sharing

How much is data security and privacy worth to digital users?

To better understand how much digital users value their data privacy, we conducted an experiment that helped us reveal how much users would be willing to pay for better data security across different platforms. From the data we collected, we built a probability of purchase model that quantifies the value digital users place on specific data policies.

Here’s how the experiment works: Respondents who indicate they are willing to pay for data security or privacy (about 39% of all respondents) are presented with series of pairs of hypothetical product choices from which they need to choose one. Those pairs display randomized product features offered by major tech companies at certain monthly fees (see example shown in the image below). From each presented pair, respondents choose the product they are more likely to purchase. After they make their selection, we show them the next randomized pair and repeat the process up to seven times.

GroupSolver discrete choice model

Out of those willing to pay, and holding everything else equal, 57% would choose their data not to be tracked and stored by companies and websites, whereas 43% would be OK with it. On average, a typical consumer would be willing to pay about $2 for their data not to be tracked.

But what about sharing data with 3rd parties? Again, holding everything else equal, 62% of users would want their data not to be shared with 3rd parties, which translates to about a $5 per month premium a typical user would be willing to pay on average.

Price premium users are willing to pay for better data security

The data clearly shows that we are much more sensitive to our data being passed around and traded after it was collected than just being collected and stored. A typical digital user willing to pay $1.00 each month to access a social media platform would be willing to pay an additional $1.90 to stop those platforms from collecting and storing their personal data, but they would be willing to pay extra $5 to stop sharing it with 3rd party companies.

For completeness, we also tested whether respondents would pay for an advertisement-free experience, however, the results were not statistically significant. It appears that users do not care about an advertisement-free experience enough to pay for it – with ads being ubiquitous on virtually every digital platform, perhaps we have learned not to be bothered by them.

Our intuition was telling us that users may have varying levels of confidence in different tech companies and what they do with our data. Testing the differences between some of the most prominent digital platforms suggests that there may be some truth in that. Looking at Google, Amazon and Facebook, we found that digital consumers perceive those three major brands somewhat differently.

Price premium users are willing to pay for better data security across Big Tech companies

Compared to the estimated $5 price premium consumers are willing to pay in general not to share their personal data with 3rd parties, Google users would offer to pay a smaller premium of less than $4, while Facebook users would be willing to pay about double to achieve the same end. Why is that? Our study doesn’t consider that question, but we may offer a hypothesis: Perhaps consumers are generally less concerned about what Google does with their data compared to Facebook. To us, these results are interesting and intuitive. However, we do note that while our quick study (N=200) shows statistically significant results, a broader study would likely reveal further nuances and differences in how consumers feel about other platforms and other data privacy and security issues.

How much is our personal data worth?

Some may argue that if personal data is being traded for business gain, data and tech companies should actually be paying users for the value that their personal data generates. They believe that users’ data is their property, and if tech companies want to use it, they should compensate users fairly for this commodity. We asked respondents to imagine that a Big Tech company offers to pay them for access to all their digital data and state the minimum monthly amount they would need to be paid to agree. The amount respondents placed on the offer ranges from $0 to $1,000 a month, with a median amount of $100 a month. 12% of respondents would give their data to Big Tech companies for free, while 38% would agree to hand over their data for $100+ a month. The large range of answers may as well be seen as a shrug by digital consumers. With no consumer market established for trading personal data, it is difficult for individuals to truly understand how much their data should really be worth and what fair compensation would look like.

Foreseeing change in the digital world

The growing digital world presents risks for users and their data, and these obstacles cannot be overcome without addressing users’ concerns. We want to be reassured that our data is secure and the playing field in trading our data is level and fair. Some feel so strongly about data security and ownership issues that they are willing to pay tech companies to change their data policies. It is hard to predict which path the ever-changing digital consumer journey takes next. However, we venture a guess that as the personal data market grows and digital consumer consciousness around it matures, a new deal will need to be struck between big tech and their digital users.

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