Privacy is often cited as essential to freedom of expression and democracy and, as such, has an important impact on our wellbeing. But privacy is no longer confined to the physical space behind our kitchen curtains or the basic anonymity of who we voted for in the last election. As lines between the ‘real’ and ‘connected’ worlds continue to blur, online data privacy becomes an increasingly significant part of our individual privacy tapestry.

The challenge of understanding privacy in a digital age is complex. How we view data privacy can be highly individualised and the resulting motivations, perceptions and behaviour can be equally diverse. There is reason to believe that the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which starts to reassert citizens’ right to control, as well as the significant media attention that recent data scandals have rightly received, will provide an important catalyst for conversation, recognition and action. Long-term implications on public understanding are as yet unclear.

However, despite the ever-growing significance of online data privacy, we often don’t have a clear understanding of what the UK public really thinks about this issue or how they actually behave with their data. Public policy debates around how an individual’s privacy is managed and protected online can be informed by instinctive responses to what ‘feels’ right or concerning. Better evidence about public attitudes and behaviour is needed. How we collectively think and act around online data privacy is having substantial societal, economic and political implications both in the UK and around the world, and it is important to note that it is not a zero-sum game. Both action and inertia have an impact as a lack of clear challenge can be taken as passive acceptance.

How do we ensure the voice of citizen is heard in the debate, when this voice is often widely dispersed, poorly organised and occasionally contradictory?

This report, commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust and produced by Ipsos MORI, brings together a wide range of recent research studies which have explored people’s attitudes and behaviours towards data privacy across different scenarios. Whilst many of the findings in this review may seem intuitive, others may be more surprising. It is important that this evidence has a role in the policy process, so decisions aren’t driven by general assumptions or narrow experiences, but by an informed evidence-based understanding.

It is clear from the research that most people in the UK are concerned about their data privacy to some degree, but attitudes and actions towards data privacy can vary according to a multitude of factors, and the actions that the public take do not always reflect this level of concern. The purpose of this review was not to provide specific policy recommendations, but unpicking these points further could help to inform appropriate responses, as the solution to engaging communities on these issues will not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

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