The Privacy Pendulum: How Millennial and Gen Z Perceptions of Search and Privacy are Changing

As digital natives and early adopters of the technologies that have shaped the 21st-century economy, Millennials and Generation Z are hardly tech skeptics. But amid high-profile data breaches and mounting scrutiny into how companies like Facebook and Google have harnessed users’ data, young adults have grown more skeptical about data collection. These younger generations are increasingly distrustful that internet companies are responsible stewards of their most sensitive information, whether it’s being used to target users with commercial offers or for more nefarious purposes. 

A recent Harris Poll, for example, found that three in four millennials and Gen Zers don’t like seeing targeted ads on their social media feeds. Moreover, 57 percent reported they so disliked barrages of targeted ads that they had either curtailed their social media consumption or completely stopped using some platforms. This flies in the face of longstanding assumptions – backed by some survey evidence – that younger consumers would gladly sacrifice privacy for the sake of convenience. Probe a little deeper, and it turns out that millennials and Gen Z value privacy, after all.

What’s driving this shift in perception? And as people’s lives increasingly go digital in the age of coronavirus, how can millennials and Gen Zers achieve the data privacy they crave? Here’s how the digital privacy debate reached this critical juncture – and how brands can help young consumers take charge of their online privacy.

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The New Contours of the Privacy Debate

There’s no doubt that the mismanagement and abuse of user data has been a driving force in millennials’ and Gen Zers’ skepticism about big tech’s privacy protections. The great privacy backlash emerged in the wake of damning revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook user data during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In the two years since the Cambridge Analytica controversy erupted, there’s been a steady drip-drip-drip of new revelations about data privacy abuses.

Zoom – the Video-conferencing platform thousands of businesses, schools, and social circles are relying on to stay connected amid coronavirus lockdowns – has recently come under fire for sharing users’ data – including their app usage, time zone, city, and device details – with Facebook, a practice Zoom has since fixed with an update to its iOS app. But the platform’s woes don’t stop there, with reports of private meetings left exposed online and disturbing accounts of organized “Zoombombing” harassment campaigns.

Meanwhile, cybersecurity experts at Check Point Research have revealed that the popular social networking app TikTok is plagued by multiple vulnerabilities that could allow cybercriminals to access and manipulate individuals’ TikTok accounts, expose private content to the public, and leak sensitive personal data.

The risks for big tech are significant: In a recent survey sponsored by Verizon, 69 percent of consumers indicated that they would steer clear of companies that had suffered data breaches.

Read more: Data Privacy as the New User Experience

Key Takeaways

To better understand how the current climate has shaped millennials’ and Gen Zers’ views on online privacy, Privado launched an online survey. The poll revealed widespread awareness of the privacy controversies swirling around major tech companies, with those surveyed voicing a strong desire for more control over how their data is shared and safeguarded. While members of this cohort are eager to take ownership of their online privacy, they need clearer guidance about what options they have.

Notably, 46 percent of respondents reported that they don’t currently use any privacy protection when surfing the web. But 42 percent said they browse in incognito mode – signaling that a substantial base of consumers are looking to protect their privacy online and are grasping for ways to do so. 

While Millennials and Gen Zers are divided into the degree of action they’re taking, there’s a broad consensus that tech giants are collecting sensitive information – and that a more privacy-friendly approach would be attractive. According to the survey, 88 percent believe that major search engines are monitoring their searches, and 84 percent would consider switching to a private search engine, with 80 percent saying they’d make the switch from their current browser of choice.

Looking to the Future

Online privacy protection is imperative – not only because of new regulatory measures like the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) and the sweeping California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – but also because consumers across generations are demanding it. That includes consumers for whom the internet has always – or nearly always – been a fact of life. 

To meet regulatory requirements and better serve users, brands and search engines must be more transparent about what data they collect and why. Despite the impending demise of online cookies, data tracking will undoubtedly continue – and people have the right to make informed choices about how or whether they engage with different brands online.

Requiring people to opt-in to data sharing – rather than following a model in which they must actively opt-out, with personal data collected by default – will go a long way toward restoring some balance to the long-running convenience/privacy debate.

In these socially distanced days, consumers may be more reliant on tech platforms than ever – which makes it all the more vital that they have their information protected and their privacy respected. As even digital natives demand more steps to safeguard their data, now is the time for the tech industry – big tech, search engines, and brands alike – to commit to privacy.

Read more: It’s Time for Brands to Be Good Guys in the Consumer Data Privacy Relationship

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