Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that it’s important to protect your data privacy online. However, sometimes it’s difficult to quantify just how far data collection goes and how much of it you need to protect. In this article, we’ll go through some interesting data privacy statistics, and how they might affect you.
- Companies rely on data about their customers to increase their revenue.
- One of the biggest sources of data collection is social media.
- Data protection laws don’t go far enough to protect people.
- Anyone can be a victim of information theft.
The world of data collection, government subpoenas and identity theft may seem like it’s far away, but in reality it’s much closer than you might think. It isn’t hopeless, and there are things you can do to protect your privacy, but the first step is knowing how big the problem really is.
Data privacy is about how companies collect, use and share your personal information. Ideally, they would only store the bare minimum and only when you give it to them directly. However, businesses have found it more profitable to use your data for targeted ads, so online privacy has become a personal responsibility.
Sort of. Although the only way to keep everything completely private is to stay offline, using privacy-focused software and not entering personal information can help. For example, a good VPN can hide your location, and search engines like DuckDuckGo limit the data that’s stored from each search.
Important Data Privacy Facts: Begin With Basics
Data privacy generally refers to how authorized parties handle your data, such as who they share it with and what they use it for. There can be good reasons for a company to have some of your personal information, but data privacy is about limiting who can use it and how they can use it.
What Happens to Your Personal Data Online?
Data collection is everywhere, and it can be sneaky. Everything from cookies to browser fingerprinting can be used to collect information on you. However, you might wonder why companies are collecting this data.
Although it varies between websites, the biggest data collectors are doing it to target ads specifically for you. This increases the chance that you’ll see an ad and click it to find out more. Since stores that get more traffic tend to get more sales, this results in more profit for the company buying the ad space (also see our online shopping statistics).
This may seem like a good thing — you get a free service and you get to see products that you like — but there is a dark side. The more you see an ad, the more likely you are to rate the product positively. So, not only is your information at risk of a data breach, but they’re using it to slowly convince you to buy something that you might not need.
The Top 26 Data Privacy Statistics You Need to Know
Here are 26 data privacy statistics that will give you a better idea of how companies collect and use personal data, what the general public thinks of this prying behavior and how widespread the problem is.
1. How Much of Your Traffic Is Being Tracked?
A study by WhoTracks.Me found that around 82 percent of web traffic contains third-party scripts by Google, and almost half of them are confirmed to be tracking you. That’s around 40 percent of web traffic being tracked by Google alone. 
2. Is Google the Only Company Doing This?
Although it is the biggest tracker, Google isn’t the only one doing this. Most of the larger tech companies are collecting and storing your data, with Facebook tracking around 15 percent of web traffic and both Twitter and Microsoft tracking around 4 percent of all traffic. 
3. What Is This Data Used For?
There are countless reasons why companies want your data, but most are using it to target ads. A Pew Research Center study found that of the Americans who knew about the “personal profiles” that companies create, 83 percent of them had seen targeted ads either “occasionally” or “frequently.” 
Percentage of People Who Have Seen Targeted Ads
No Response: 1%
4. What Are Some Acceptable Reasons to Use This Data?
This Pew Research Center study also found that 49 percent of Americans were OK with the government collecting personal data to track terrorists. However, only 25 percent said that it was acceptable for smart-speaker makers to share your audio recordings with the police to help catch criminals. 
This means that an organization doesn’t just need the right reasons, but they also have to be trusted to do that job and not use the data for anything else.
5. Should You Be Able to Control Your Personal Data?
Although it wasn’t completely unanimous, another Pew Research Center study found that 93 percent of Americans considered it important to be able to control who could access their personal data. 
6. Can You Control Your Personal Data?
Even though 93 percent of Americans said it was important to be able to control their data, only nine percent said they had “a lot of control” over the data that is collected from them. So, while online privacy is important to many people, businesses and current privacy laws just don’t do enough to give people control. 
7. How Long Should Data Be Stored?
Half of American adults said that online advertisers shouldn’t store any information on their customers. However, of those who were OK with some personal data being stored, most believed they should only store this data for a few weeks at most. 
8. How Important Is It to Not Be Monitored?
Even though the Pew Research Center found people wanted to control their personal data, the same study also found that only 56 percent of Americans found it important to not be monitored at work. Overall, people were less worried about a company or business tracking them when they were working for the business. 
9. Are Privacy Laws Effective?
It’s fine to suggest laws and restrictions to improve data protection, as long as they work. Luckily, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that over half of the companies they spoke to considered government regulation the biggest hurdle to data usage, so it clearly has some benefit. 
10. Do Internet Users Trust Privacy Laws?
Another problem with privacy laws is whether people actually trust that they’re protecting their privacy. However, a study by Aikami showed that 66 percent of consumers wanted more governments to pass laws like the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR), and only nine percent and six percent thought such laws were ineffectual or harmful, respectively. 
Percent of Consumers Who Want Laws Like the GDPR
66% Want more privacy laws
17% Not sure
9% These laws are ineffective
6% Laws hard on business
2% None of the above
11. Do Consumers Trust Social Media Platforms With Personal Information?
While 69 percent of U.S. adults hold social media accounts, only 47 percent of social media users were confident in the ability of these companies to protect their data. As only nine percent put the highest “very confident” rating, users clearly don’t trust these companies with their most sensitive data. 
12. Are Other Companies Trusted More Than Social Media Companies?
Not only are social media companies some of the top data collectors, but a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of U.S. adults felt their social media privacy wasn’t secure. This is compared to 58 percent who felt their texts were insecure, 57 percent who felt their emails were insecure and 31 percent who felt their conversations over a landline were insecure. 
13. What Data Do People Trust Companies With?
Obviously — with 95 percent of people agreeing — social security numbers were considered one of the most sensitive pieces of information. After that was healthcare information (81 percent), physical location details (81 percent) and the content of private communications — between 75 percent and 81 percent depending on the type of message.
However, people didn’t consider things like the media they liked (31 percent), their purchasing habits (41 percent) and their religious and political views (45 percent and 51 percent, respectively) as important, and were more willing to trust companies with them. 
Most Sensitive Personal Data
14. How Much Do Companies Benefit From Consumer Data?
Despite keeping the numbers well hidden, one analysis calculated that there was around a four percent increase in revenue for the advertising platform when cookies were available. Although this is billions of dollars for some of the biggest companies, it shows how little our data is worth on the internet and suggests it may not be impossible to move away from some data collection. 
15. Where Are Cookies Used?
Since cookies are a major source of information for organizations that want your data, you could just try to avoid them. However, cookies are an important part of the modern internet. W3Techs found that even without entering data — such as logging into a website — around 45 percent of websites used some kind of cookie. 
16. Do These Cookies Stick Around?
17. Do Consumers Benefit From These Ads?
While the companies selling your data are only getting a four percent revenue boost, a study by Akamai research found that 84 percent of people would be happy with targeted ads, as long as they had some control over what they saw. 
18. So Do Targeted Ads Get Clicked More Often?
In 2016, IHS Markit found that targeted ads had a click-through rate that was 5.3 times higher than traditional ads. This increased to 10.8 times the rate for traditional ads when the person being targeted had clicked on similar ads before. 
19. So Isn’t This Good for the Consumer?
Given that people want relevant ads and will click on them, you might think that this is a good thing. However, targeted ads don’t just increase the likelihood that you’ll buy something, but also change how people will act, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Depending on the ad they saw, participants would rate themselves as more sophisticated, more outdoorsy or even more environmentally conscious. Your personal data could be used to change your own actions, an ability that no business should have. 
20. What About Data Breaches?
Another reason that people are worried about data security is the risk of a data breach. Although these don’t happen every day, when they do they can be devastating. This led to the first half of 2018 having over 3.3 billion records lost, according to the Gemalto breach level index.
This made 2018 one of the worst years for data security, rivaled only by the infamous Yahoo Data breach in 2013. 
21. Why Do Data Breaches Happen?
Since companies use the data they collect for ads, something cybercriminals aren’t exactly able to do, they must be using your information a different way. Thanks to the same Gemalto report, we know that identity theft is the main reason for most of these attacks. However, the number of identity theft cases was down around 25 percent between 2017 and 2018, suggesting that simply stealing the data isn’t enough. 
22. Does Knowing About Surveillance Affect People’s Behavior?
After the Snowden reports were released, 34 percent of adults who had heard about it (30 percent of the total adult population) took steps to protect their personal data. However, 54 percent of adults thought it would be difficult to protect their data, so there need to be more privacy laws to protect the less tech-savvy customers. 
Hearing of the Snowden reports led people to change how they use these technologies.
23. What About Government Requests for Data?
Criminals and companies aren’t the only ones who like to monitor your internet use: the U.S. government — among others — also likes to collect data on its citizens. Although the U.S. doesn’t make information on government data collection easy to get, Apple’s own transparency report shows how bad the problem has gotten.
In the second half of 2019, Apple had 159,128 device requests by governments, 80,235 of which came from the U.S. government. Since they might be able to read almost all of your personal data once they have the phone, this is a big risk to your privacy. 
24. Why Do Governments Request This Data?
Governments can and will use any reason — from stolen devices to fraud — to take a device. This is to gather things like credit card information or to track each place the device has been. However, since governments get access to around 80 percent of devices and 90 percent of accounts they request, if a court asks for your data, you can say goodbye to your privacy. 
25. Can Private Parties Request Data for Legal Purposes?
Further on in the Apple transparency report, we see that 31 percent of the 202 requests by private parties resulted in data being handed over. Although this isn’t many, given Apple’s general push for security, it’s unlikely that any other tech giant could refuse to hand over their customers’ data if ordered by the court, unless it’s obscured with zero-knowledge encryption, of course. 
26. How Many People Try to Avoid Data Collection?
In an effort to either limit the danger of certain cybersecurity threats or remove the power of data collection organizations, 71 percent of internet users have taken to using some kind of software solution.
Although this includes ad blockers — which remove the targeted ads but don’t always stop data collection — this is widespread enough to show that people care about their online privacy. 
Online Data Privacy and Security Trends
There have recently been some improvements online to data security, such as the rapid uptake of the https protocol. In January 2018, around 26.9 percent of websites used https as the default protocol, and it has steadily increased to 68.8 percent in 2021. The push toward using encryption — specifically TLS encryption — is a clear benefit to your privacy.
Number of Internet Sites Using HTTPS Protocol
However, a big concern surrounding data privacy centers around increased social media use and how these companies use that personal data — and a good example came from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytical data scandal.
The Impact of Social Media on Data Privacy and Security
Although every website has the potential to track you, social media companies have access to significantly more of this data. Every like, post, comment, friend request and follow is another data point, and users are even willing to enter details like their age, gender, location and job when they create a profile.
Social media users give a lot of information to these companies, and most Americans don’t trust them with this data. Even if they don’t sell this information directly, there’s a good chance that they will use it to target you with specific ads that you’re likely to be susceptible to.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Sites such as WT.Social rely on donations rather than data collection to pay for their servers. However, outside of certain obscure platforms, it seems like you’ll have to protect your data from the social media giants yourself.
More Social Media = More Money
Social media usage among American adults has increased from five percent in 2005 to 69 percent in 2018, and it presents one of the biggest problems internet users face when trying to protect their personal data. It’s also getting harder to quit, with 28 percent in 2014 saying it would be difficult to leave, increasing to 40 percent in 2018.
We also know that companies are getting more money because of this data. Facebook saw 4.6 times the monthly users in Q4 of 2020 compared to Q4 of 2010, yet Facebook’s revenue increased by 43.5 times within that same period. One of the main ways Facebook got this level of growth was via their focus on data collection and targeted ads.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Data
Using a VPN is a surefire way to keep your online traffic private. A VPN scrambles your traffic data in a way that makes it impossible for anyone to know what websites you’re visiting or what you’re doing on the internet.
However, not even a VPN can stop companies like Facebook from gathering data about you as you use their site, as they hold too much identifying information. This information could easily find itself in the hands of data brokers, and from there, who knows where it’ll end up.
Surfshark Incogni is a tool that can help remove yourself from data collection sites. It contacts known data brokers in its database to ask them to delete your data, and follows up several times to make sure the data gets erased.
If that piques your interest, check out our Surfshark Incogni review. However, it’s not the only reliable data privacy tool, so be sure to read our best data privacy management tools guide.
The ability to hide all of your personal data from businesses, governments and criminals probably won’t happen soon, at least not until there are some improvements to privacy laws. Read our, Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy framework, U.S. data privacy laws and Swiss privacy laws to learn more.
Even if you trust the company you’re giving data to, mistakes happen. To protect yourself, you should also use a good VPN to hide your IP address or make sure the service has end-to-end encryption to protect your conversations from stalkers and data breaches. Be sure to check out our VPN statistics and online gaming statistics pieces, too.
Are you concerned about data privacy? Did any of these statistics surprise you? Do you know of any interesting statistics we missed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.
 Pew Research public knowledge and experiences with data-driven ads
 Pew Research Americans’ Views About Data Collection and Security
 IAB data
 Pew Research Americans’ complicated feelings about social media in an era of privacy concerns
 Pew Research public perceptions of privacy and security in the post-Snowden era
 Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis
 IHS Markit
 Journal of Consumer Research
 Pew Research Americans’ privacy strategies post-Snowden
 Apple’s transparency report