UK citizens want more privacy but don’t know where to look

Nearly 90% of Britons are concerned about the privacy of their personal data online, but 20% don’t use any data protection practices at all.

People around the world are becoming more and more concerned about how their data is collected and used but remain unsure of what they can do to protect themselves. This is demonstrated in the results of a survey we conducted with 2,070 UK adults with YouGov, where nearly all survey subjects — 87% — expressed concern for their privacy, but a substantial portion — 20% — did not do anything to protect their personal data.

We believe there are two explanations for this disconnect:

  • People believe that protecting their privacy is too difficult to do themselves
  • People do not fully understand how their data is collected by the services they use

When privacy tools are simple, people use them

When people are prompted with simple steps to protect their privacy, a large portion of them will take action. The steps UK citizens take to protect their privacy are:

  • Decline marketing cookies — 33%
  • Employ two-factor authentication on social media and email accounts — 31%
  • Install and use an ad blocker — 22%
  • Browse the internet in incognito/private mode — 22% 
  • Use a privacy-focused search engine — 9%
  • Use a privacy-focused internet browser — 5%
  • Use a privacy-focused email provider — 3%

This shows that a sizable portion of the UK population is proactively attempting to limit how much of their data is collected. All of the most popular steps are relatively simple and can be turned on or off with a single switch. Unfortunately, these options also all have a relatively limited impact when it comes to protecting your privacy, at least compared to some of the other steps.

By contrast, the least used techniques, like switching to privacy-focused service providers, offer the most privacy protection. But these services are threats to the current Big Tech monopolists, who use their size and power to tilt the market in their favor. 

For example, Gmail, Google Search, and Google Chrome are all pre-installed defaults on Android devices, the most popular smartphones in the world. You need a Gmail account just to use Android. And Google pays Apple an enormous sum (a reported $15 billion for 2021 alone) to be the default search engine on iPhones and iPads. And since studies have shown that 95% of people never change the default settings on their device, this means that the vast majority of people are locked into options whose business model requires data collection. 

Big Tech intentionally makes privacy complicated

Online privacy is a complicated topic — intentionally so. Despite ad campaigns from Big Tech companies claiming that they take privacy seriously, companies like Google rely on their users’ data to sell advertising. These companies tout the control they give to people but then put out incomprehensible privacy policies and terms and conditions, making it difficult for the average person to understand what is happening to their data. 

This confusion is demonstrated in the results of our survey. According to responses, 90% of people don’t want their emails scanned, 87% don’t want their contacts scanned, and 79% don’t want their location recorded, and yet 82% of people use email providers that do all of the above. 

If Big Tech companies truly wanted to make their services more private, they would enable their privacy controls by default. Instead, they bury their privacy controls in a maze of menus and force people to turn off each instance of data collection individually, increasing the chance that they miss something or give up entirely.

Younger Britons have fewer privacy expectations

According to our survey, concerns around privacy decrease dramatically as you speak to younger and younger audiences. Respondents to our survey between 18 and 24 years old were nearly three times as likely to be unconcerned about their privacy (16%) as respondents who were 55 years old or older (6%). Correspondingly, 57% of respondents in the 18-24 age bracket use Gmail, a service that scans your emails and contacts, as compared to 32% of respondents in the 55 and up age bracket.

This suggests that some young people who grew up surrounded by pervasive data collection feel that there is no alternative. 

It is concerning, yet unsurprising, that a significant minority of young people in the UK are more likely to accept routine invasion of their privacy as the norm. There are now entire generations who have only ever known these current levels of excessive surveillance, suggesting they don’t see this as an intrusion on their privacy or that they have given up hope on any meaningful alternative.

Empowering people to choose privacy

The results of our survey show that Britons of all ages overwhelmingly do want to protect their personal data but need clear, simple, privacy-focused alternatives. When privacy is made simple, and people are given a free choice and not locked into pre-installed apps, this survey shows UK citizens have been happy to act. 

It would be foolish to rely on Big Tech companies to make it easy to understand or stop the data collection that they rely upon so much, and while there is promising legislation on the horizon — such as the Digital Markets Act — lawmaking is never a fast enterprise. In the absence of laws and regulations preventing Big Tech from saturating their devices with invasive pre-installed default apps, it falls to companies like Proton and others who are building privacy-focused tools to ensure everyone can make a free and informed choice to decide when and how their data is used.

To switch to a private, encrypted email service, switch to ProtonMail.

About the Author

Richie Koch

Prior to joining Proton, Richie spent several years working on tech solutions in the developing world. He joined the Proton team to advance the rights of online privacy and freedom.