There’s a trade-off when it comes to the conveniences and personalization benefits we enjoy today thanks to tech. We can acquire tons of loyalty points with retailers, receive targeted advertisements, get discounts on items that we need (or want), and enjoy an overall customized experience from the brands we love. But it all comes at a price.

Typically, that price is divulging your personal information to companies – from something as basic as your name, age, gender, and the city in which you reside, to as detailed as your purchasing history, family income, where you went on your last vacation, and what cologne you like.

Is it worth it? Some would say a resounding yes. Providing this information to companies you deal with frequently, or brands that interest you, can result in cost savings over the long run, and a more personalized relationship with companies that can introduce you to useful products, whether it’s gear that’s compatible with your smart home, or foods that expand your cooking repertoire. But others say heck no, they don’t want companies accessing anything about them beyond the basic information that could be found on a standard receipt or that’s provided for an opt-in e-mail subscription.

The 2018 Norton LifeLock Cyber Safety Insights Report released last month found that 70% of Canadians are actually willing to sell or give away certain personal information, like their current location (57%) and even Internet search history (53%), to companies. Some are even willing to provide identification document information, such as driver’s license or passport information. Yet ironically, 72% say they are “more alarmed than ever about their privacy.”

Not surprisingly, those of younger generations are significantly more likely to embrace data sharing, with more of those who are 18-53 willing to sell or give away certain personal information, such as their location (66% versus 44%) or internet search history (65% versus 37%), compared to those who are 54 and older.

The Harris Poll was conducted with more than 1,000 adults and found that while Canadians are receptive to companies gaining access to their personal information, there’s one caveat: they want control over how their personal data is used. Ninety-seven per cent of respondents said it’s important that companies give customers control over their own personal data, and 53% believe it’s not just important, but absolutely essential.

Canadians also want action to be taken against companies that don’t follow these transparency rules. More than half (56%) said companies should provide a way for customers to report misuse of personal data, or risk paying a fine.

For a large, multinational corporation, however, it would be more cost effective to pay a small fine for breaching someone’s privacy than it would be to relinquish access to streams of personal data that can yield tremendous monetary benefits over the long run. What’s more potentially damaging than a fine is if customers abandon a brand for knowingly sharing their information or using it in such a way that goes beyond a reasonable scope. With social media making it possible for a brand name to be tarnished with one (or a few) negative posts, keeping customers from turning against you is arguably the biggest incentive for brands to avoid sharing or misusing customer data.

People sometimes don’t even realize that their data is being accessed, though, which poses a whole other set of issues. 

“Most consumers are aware their data is being captured from the websites they visit, the social media they share, and the apps they use, and trust their information is being properly secured,” says Samir Kapuria, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Consumer Digital Safety, Symantec. “However, these same consumers are often unaware how and why data is captured and what companies do with it. The sheer amount of personal information being collected about us shows no signs of slowing, and there is greater value placed on it than ever before.”

Thus, for the average web user, there’s little you can do to protect all of your personal information. If you want to use social media, standard web browsers, and apps, access streaming music and TV services, set up smart home devices, and more, you don’t have much of a choice. You can, however, take small steps to protect your information. Read privacy policies before you click “agree,” particularly the sections on how and why your personal information might be used, or even shared. If you feel strongly against the terminology, or find it to be too open-ended, it might be worth searching for an alternative service. Before downloading an app, check what details the owners say they will be able to access. In some cases, it might just be your name and e-mail address. In others, it might include your camera which could be essential to the function of the app, or not. Some apps request access to your entire friends list. Is this something that makes sense? Are you comfortable with the data they want to access? If not, find an alternative. When browsing social media sites like Facebook, don’t ever do those silly quizzes that tell you what Backstreet Boy you are, or what you will look like 20 years from now. While tempting, these types of apps are how companies collect relevant data on you while you think you’re just filling out a harmless questionnaire.

Canadians admit that they don’t trust social media providers, with 95% saying they have little or no trust in them when it comes to managing and protecting their personal information. In fact, one in five Canadians with a social media account (20%) has deleted an account in the past 12 months due to privacy concerns.

If you’re really concerned, there are clean web browsers like DuckDuckGo that let you search the web without being tracked. Or simply stay off social media entirely. For those who want to keep up with the times, and enjoy connecting with friends, online shopping, and smart home devices, however, such drastic measures aren’t on the table.

There is a positive side to all of this that we shouldn’t forget about. Having companies access your information can work to your benefit. I see ads that are relevant to me, or at least for items for which I recently searched for online. I receive discounts on grocery items that I’m about to run low on, and personalized offers from my favourite clothing stores. And all of this works to my benefit, even if my local grocer knows far too much about what I eat on a weekly basis and how much I spend on food per month, and Google knows what I’m going to want to buy next week before even I do.

According to Kapuria, consumers, in the end, are willing to take risks in favour of convenience. “Convenience continues to reign supreme when it comes to sharing personal data.”

When it comes down to it, the companies that will be the leaders of tomorrow are those that use detailed customer profiles for personalized targeting without annoying or creeping people out, without sharing data with partners (where it isn’t explicitly permitted by the customer), and that understand how to deliver value in a unique way. If a company can justify the collection of your data, and ensure that it’s kept secure, we might not be OK with companies knowing so much about us, but we’ll at least be able to live with it.

Photo by RK008; freedigitalphotos.net