data sensitivity

How context impacts personal data sensitivity and the importance of being socially aware online

I recently had a paper published in De Gruyter examining how context impacts personal data sensitivity of internet users. I co-authored it with Martin Ortlieb at Google. Here’s an extract:

“We showed that the sensitivity of data items is not a linear stackrank for users. Sensitivity varies depending on context, but it is rarely fixed and can be reduced, if companies focus on certain conditions that build user trust such as highlighting transparency, control and benefits for users. We see that users – particularly older, rural and/or less tech-savvy users – often do not understand how and why certain data is collected in different online scenarios which leads to increased sensitivity and a reluctance to share that data with online companies.”

Two key learnings from the study on personal data sensitivity

  1. Trust is becoming the new currency in an increasingly data driven economy. Not just in delivering a good product or service experience but also trust in the motives of a brand. Personal data is essential in developing strong customer relationships. Being transparent about the use of personal data, and giving the user control of it, will foster a greater sense of trust between customers and brands. Monitoring trust will be a key indicator of business success and future growth potential in an information age.

  2. Context is key to any form of personal data exchange. There is a close connection between the use of personal data and forming relationships. A high street retailer requesting information about someone’s health is out of context and would be considered too sensitive. Brands should recognise the context surrounding the request for data as it heavily impacts customers’ levels of sensitivity. For example, when you first meet someone in a typical real life setting, it would be socially unacceptable to inquire about their financial and health status. We tend to start with small talk; ask questions about where people live and what they do at work. The same is true in for businesses forming new relationships with customers.


p>Our digital relationships are maturing and new digital social norms are forming. If businesses want to be more human (which seems evident given their presence on social networks, drive towards more personalised experiences and the development of chatbots and conversational AI), being “socially aware” in digital domains will be absolutely critical.

Image: Tom

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