Over half the respondents of a new University of Bristol study said they would donate their personal data — as long as it’s for the benefit of science and the general public.
I think we can all agree: having your data tossed and sold around between opaque companies is very uncool. However, a new study found that people are way more open to the idea of giving up or donating their data as long as it’s in the service of science and the community at large. The results suggest that such a practice is perceived as an acceptable use of private data by a large percentage of the general public, with potential implications for research and possibly civic organizations as well.
An intangible wealth of data
“Digital technology opens up a new era in the understanding of human behaviour and lifestyle choices, with people’s daily activities and habits leaving ‘footprints’ in their digital records,” says Dr Anya Skatova, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Digital Innovation and Wellbeing in the Bristol School of Psychological Science, the lead author of the study.
Personal data can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts. One of the most comprehensive ones, I feel, is the European Union’s interpretation of the term under its GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Personal data is defined there as “any information that relates to an identified or identifiable living individual”, including “pieces of information” which “can lead to the identification of a particular person”. Data that has been anonymized or in any way processed “but can be used to re-identify a person remains personal data […] regardless of the technology used for processing that data”. Data processed “in such a way that the individual is not or no longer identifiable” is no longer considered personal data.
All of us generate massive amounts of personal data through our comings and goings in the digital realm. This, very often, happens behind our back and without our consent — or with ‘consent’ extracted from mile-long Terms & Conditions that nobody actually ever reads. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a dating app has stunning amounts of data on its users, often without them realizing.
“Apps such as Tinder are taking advantage of a simple emotional phenomenon; we can’t feel data,” Luke Stark, a digital technology sociologist at Dartmouth University, told Judith Duportail at The Guardian back in 2017. “This is why seeing everything printed strikes you. We are physical creatures. We need materiality.”
So we can all agree that we don’t like our personal data being used without our consent. But what uses of personal data would people be fine with, and why? In order to find out, the team put together a questionnaire that gauged the motivations of 1,300 people for donating their data. It contained three distinct reasons: an opportunity for self-benefit, social duty, and the need to understand the purpose of data donation.
Social duty included motivations such as the desire to help better society or give back to a community. Self-interest tied into the need to gain personal benefits as a result of donating data — such as a boost in reputation, or avoiding feelings of guilt. Purpose of use was tied to the need to understand the consequences of donating data, and of understanding what it would be used following donation.
The strongest motive out of the three seems to be the desire to serve society, the team found. On the other end of the spectrum, the strongest predictor for the decision not to donate personal data was the need to gain direct benefits as a result of data donation. The need to know the consequences of donating personal data was nevertheless an important third factor that people considered when making the decision whether to donate or not, even if the other two carried more weight by themselves.
The study also found that different forms of empathy help define various types of prosocial motivation for individuals and that these differences could matter in the context of data donation. The team recommends future research into what personality differences or contextual factors can explain individual motivations to donate personal data or not.
“Our results demonstrate that these motivations predict people’s intentions to donate personal data over and above generic altruistic motives and relevant personality traits,” Dr. Skatova explains.
“The creation and use of data generated by each and every one of us for industry is here to stay, along with all the good and bad that can entail. In these times where consumer data is mined by companies, data donation can redress this power imbalance by providing a safe and ethical route that allows individuals to explicitly consent to what research organisation they share their data with, and for what purpose.”
The paper “Psychology of personal data donation” has been published in the journal PLOS One.