A new Data Protection Public Awareness Survey, conducted during May last year and published Monday, has discovered that Irish citizens are becoming increasingly aware of data protection and privacy issues but, perhaps, are not as concerned about them as they should be.

The questionnaire, part of a Millward Brown omnibus survey, recorded the responses of 1,000 adults and was completed in a way designed to give a representative cross-section of the population, considering age, sex, location, and social class.

In announcing the survey results, timed to coincide with 8th Council of Europe Data Protection Day, January 28, 2014, the Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, said,

“The continued increase in awareness of my Office is to be welcomed. The survey results again demonstrate that Irish citizens continue to have legitimate concerns about privacy in relation to internet use. In relation to indications that people have become more accepting of the potential availability of their personal information online, the experience of this Office is that vigilance should be maintained at all times by individuals when posting personal information online particularly where that information is available for public viewing. Regarding the increase in unsolicited electronic communications reported by respondents, we continue to devote considerable attention to this area and to prosecute offenders who breach regulations regarding unsolicited electronic communications.”

The survey threw up several interesting insights into how Irish people perceive what is undoubtedly a hot topic right now.

Especially pleasing to Billy Hawkes, the Data Protection Commissioner whose office commissioned the report, will be the fact that awareness of his role continues to increase with 65% of respondents having heard of him, compared with a mere 25% back in 1997 when the annual reports first began.

Curiously, however, the poll highlighted how respondents, who do have concerns about privacy, especially on the net, had become more accepting of the fact that their personal information was increasingly available online. This was especially evident when asked about social networking privacy policies and the monitoring of internet usage logs. Furthermore, only 44% of those surveyed were concerned about what a query on Google or other search engines may reveal about them, down from 65% in 2008.

This change in attitude came at a time when 68% of those polled admitted to having had their own privacy invaded at some point, a three percent increase since 2008. The key area in which an invasion of privacy occurred was the receipt of unsolicited text messages and emails with almost half of those questioned saying they had received email spam, up from around a quarter in 2008. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said that it continues to build awareness and prosecute offenders in this, the area which singly annoys the public the most.

Whilst the survey showed that the levels of awareness and concern of data protection and privacy issues was well balanced across the sexes and all age ranges, it did discover that geographical location could be a significant factor. In the capital, Dublin, only two thirds of respondents expressed concern over the privacy of their personal information. By comparison, 78% of Munster residents did have such concerns, rising to 95% of those based in Connacht/Ulster. The results for Dublin are, in my opinion, rather surprising given how the area has become increasingly attractive to security firms recently.

The questionnaire also highlighted how attitudes to privacy vary depending upon the type of information concerned. Less than half of those who took part in the survey were concerned about their CVs, internet usage and telephone usage becoming publicly available. In contrast, 89% of those questioned highlighted protection of their medical records as being vitally important. Interestingly, this was again different in Dublin where only 57% of those polled shared the same concern.

Other areas where the public feel that the confidentiality of their data needs to be strong include their financial details, Personal Public Service Number, social welfare record and police record. There wasn’t so much variation in results based upon location for these areas but the poll did highlight how women were generally more concerned about the privacy of key pieces of information than men.

Encouragingly, Irish citizens appear to be increasingly aware of their rights, and where to turn to, when they feel they need to make a complaint.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they would make a privacy complaint to the Gardai with a further 20% saying they would head first to the Data Protection Commissioner’s office. The number of people saying they would take a complaint to the Ombudsman more than doubled between surveys, rising from 9% to 20%, whilst those who would report their concerns to the National Consumer Agency increased to 11% (from 6%).

In terms of legal protection the survey discovered that almost three quarters (73%) of those surveyed were aware that they could opt-out from receiving marketing calls or text messages. Results also showed that a good number of respondents were aware of their rights in relation to –

  • having inaccurate information about themselves amended
  • obtaining information about themselves held by an organisation
  • acquiring compensation through the court system when their personal information had been misued
  • the ability to object to biometic usage
  • complaining about excessive use of CCTV systems in the workplace 

You can learn more about this report here and further information on the Council of Europe Data Protection Day can be found at http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/standardsetting/dataprotection/Data_protection_day_en.asp

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