“Control alt or delete”: consumer attitudes to data collection and use

Data-dependent technology has become fully integrated in society and is transforming people’s lives. Companies have never known so much about consumers, collecting data from online searches, purchase histories from credit cards, inferred data from social media interactions - the sources are numerous. Discussion of these changes usually leads to a debate on privacy.

In this Comment piece for The Observatory, Caroline Normand, Director of Policy at Which?, looks at how Which? wanted to take a step back from this narrow focus and ask a broader question: how do consumers feel about data collection and its use by organisations in general?

Which?, recently undertook a comprehensive programme of qualitative and quantitative research to explore what people know and how they feel about the collection of their consumer data and its use by commercial organisations. This included: a segmentation from a nationally representative phone survey, interviews with vulnerable consumers, focus groups and deliberative workshops.

We identified the following insights from our research programme:

  • There are 12 segments of consumers in the population, with differing combinations of attitudes and behaviours towards data collection and use. These attitudes and behaviours are not necessarily congruent,

  • Consumers believe, incorrectly, that data transactions are “bounded” because they have an incomplete knowledge of the data ecosystem,

  • Consumers judge the acceptability of data collection by what impact it has on them,

  • Consumers are primed to “accept” data collection as having a positive impact, because it is easier to identify and conceptualise benefits than harms,

  • Consumers are pushed into operating in a space of "rational disengagement",

  • Consumers are often surprised that there isn’t more regulation of data collection and use.

Our segmentation found that there were four attitudinal groups within the population, and behavioural groups were nested within each of these to varying extents (totalling 12 segments in all). The differing behaviours exhibited by people with the same attitudes highlights the relative lack of a relationship between attitudes and behaviour when it comes to data.


To explore the Which? segmentation further, please click here.

Discussion points and policy recommendations

Our policy and research findings were discussed at two Which? events, with expert panels including representatives from Facebook, The Economist, University of Warwick, techUK, Mozilla, DotEveryone and Leo Burnett. Attendees included industry, government, regulators, policy makers and academics, there was wide-ranging discussion on the implications of the research, including the following:

1. The need to move the policy debate on from abstract concepts, such as privacy, to outcomes - what it means for the consumer.

The debate that’s usually associated with the omnipresence of data is about the consequences for consumers’ privacy. However, our research found that consumers do not tend to make decisions based on context-less ideals. Instead we found that consumers judge the acceptability of data collection not primarily by a judgment on privacy ideals, but by evaluating the relevance and impact it may have on them (both benefits and harm). It is only by knowing how their data was going to be used, and the associated impact, that consumers were able to come to a judgment. This judgment may be influenced by their privacy ideals; however it was rooted in the context of impact and an assessment of appropriateness in this context.

2. The need to build more control in the ecosystem.

People generally assume that there are regulations preventing the widespread sharing and use of their data. When we provided them with information about the data ecosystem many were surprised that their data was allowed to change hands so many times and some assumed that regulations would more strictly control such practices. They tend to feel unable to control what data is collected and how it’s used. This lack of control is one of the reasons why the majority (81%) of the population is against the selling of anonymised data to third parties: people don’t have control over where their data goes, and the data they consented to give in one context is being used in a way they may not have consented to if given the choice.

Previously control has been interpreted as needing to hand control back to the consumer. But how realistic is this? Sometimes people may want to have direct personal control over their data. However, in some instances (for example when not enough information is given for them to make a decision), the remedy may not be to make it consumers’ responsibility. Instead action is needed to ensure good governance of the eco-system and, that clear accountabilities exist and recompense is given when things go wrong (such as breaches).

3. The need to create markets where consumers are empowered to engage.

What benefits are there from engaging? Consumers perceive the situation as one of Hobson’s choice; use technology and your data is collected or don’t use technology. It is in this context that previous research has indicated that consumers are “resigned” to their data being collected. However this indicates an attitudinal acceptance. Instead we believe that consumers are pushed into operating in a space of "rational disengagement". This is where the cost of trying to engage, (e.g. understand what data is being collected and attempt to control this), is so much greater than any benefits that there is little reason for them to do so. It is this rational disengagement which consumers’ behaviour is displaying, not a representation of resignation.

Which?'s recommendations.

Through this work Which? has identified three recommendations to enable consumers to rebalance power over use of their data.

  1. Consumers and their advocates need more transparency about the impact that personal data has on their lives.

  2. It is time for a thoroughgoing review of governance of data in motion, with due attention given to creative ways to improve oversight and enforcement.

  3. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) should conduct a market study in to the digital advertising industry as a matter of urgency.

Our mission at Which? is to make consumers as powerful as the organisations they deal with in their everyday lives; those organisations are now processing unprecedented amounts of consumer data and this will only grow in the future. It is our intention to continue to understand and help facilitate the rebalance of power to consumers.

The full Which? Policy report: “Control, Alt or Delete? The Future of Consumer Data” can be found here and the accompanying full research report here.


• Scoping stage rapid literature review [https://www.which.co.uk/policy/digitisation/2721/consumers-and-their-data-research-review].

• Scoping stage primary research: 6 focus groups, lasting 2 hours, with 9-10 consumers in each between 20th and 27th November 2017. Locations were London, Nottingham and Colne, Lancashire. Participants were recruited to ensure a spread of gender, age, ethnicity, self-assessed knowledge about data collection and level of comfort with data collection and sharing.

• Mainstage primary research: A quantitative telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,064 UK consumers, with a separate boost of an additional 150 interviews in Scotland, between 18th and 28th January 2018. The survey was cognitively tested prior to fieldwork to ensure comprehension. Data was used to develop a segmentation of consumers. • Mainstage primary research: 4 deliberative workshops, each one lasting 1.5 days, between 7th and 27th February 2018. Each deliberative workshop consisted of 24 consumers and locations were Newport, Leeds, Perth and St Albans. Participants were recruited to ensure a spread of gender, age, ethnicity, self-assessed knowledge about data collection and self-reported confidence online.

• Hard to reach and vulnerable consumers primary research: 21 face-to-face depth interviews with vulnerable consumers in London, Nottingham, Colne, Newport, Leeds, Perth and St Albans, between 20th and 27th November 2017 and 7th and 27th February 2018. Vulnerable consumers were defined as: older consumers aged 80 years and over; consumers belonging to a lower SEG group (DE); consumers with a long-term physical or mental health condition/ disability; consumers who do not feel confident speaking, reading or writing in English.

Segmentation technical summary:

• A data-led hierarchical clustering method was conducted in two stages to first derive high-level clusters based purely upon attitudes, then a second stage based upon the behavioural related questions. The second-order behavioural clusters were nested within the initial attitudinal clusters. We used hierarchical clustering to determine the optimal number of clusters, then k-means clustering to determine cluster membership.

• The inputs to the clustering were summary constructs created via two-factor analyses of batteries of survey questions. These resulted in summary 6 measures from 23 questions relating to attitudes and summary 3 measures of behaviours from 12 survey questions, explaining 55% and 47% of the variance in the data respectively.