People are more aware than ever that their personal information has financial value. At the same time, they have very little transparency as to who knows what about them, how their data is gathered and how it is used for commercial purposes.
These are the findings that have emerged in the latest global survey conducted by Montreal-based Aimia Inc., which runs loyalty programs around the world including Aeroplan. Of more than 15,000 people surveyed in nine countries including Canada, 71 per cent agreed that, "It is impossible to know who knows what about me nowadays."
But there is one thing that people do recognize: that their information has real value to companies for purposes such as advertising targeting. Over the three years that Aimia has done its "Loyalty Lens" study, the people surveyed globally who rated their information as highly valuable has jumped by about 10 per cent.
But people also do not see all information as equally valuable:
The rising perception of value matters because even consumers who are willing to share information expect something in return. This can mean better offers on products and services they already want, or other value exchange.
Maurice Lévy, the chief executive officer of ad giant Publicis Groupe SA, has publicly suggested the industry could financially compensate consumers every time their personal information is used to target ads to them.
"The industry could be a little bit more transparent about how they're using customer data. There's a saying, 'If it's free, you're not the customer, you're the product,'" said David Johnston, Aimia's group chief operating officer.
"When I'm online as a shopper, I always have that in my mind."
People are more suspicious of how their information is tracked because we can all see how much the digital world is part of the fabric of our everyday lives: We carry around mini-computers in our purses and pockets constantly. We all see more marketing messages that seem familiar with our Internet browsing history and our interests. And the more technology proliferates, the more privacy is a concern.
Earlier this year, a global network of privacy advocates raised concerns about Internet-connected devices – such as fitness trackers, "smart" TVs, toys and other products – that do not give users sufficient control over the information they collect and transmit.
And yet, while people are both more aware and more wary of data collection, they are also more willing to share. This is particularly evident among younger people.
But marketers should not mistake this generational shift – a growing comfort with exchanging information for services – with a blasé attitude.
"As consumers become more aware of how they are sharing data and how their data are being used, their expectations [of receiving value in return] go up," Mr. Johnston said.
"Consumers are wise to remain guarded, and to a certain extent slightly skeptical, about what brands are doing. … Marketers still have a ways to go to live up to that increasing level of expectation."