Privacy and Safety Online: Stepping Forward

Is being online getting more risky? Or are the risks more widely publicised? Are internet users getting better at taking action to reduce common risks or are we just as unsure how to protect ourselves as we were a few years ago?

In this post, we look at some recent data from the Oxford Internet Institute that suggests answers to some of these questions, and we ask how digital skills projects and digital champions can better support people to maintain their privacy and avoid common online risks.

Getting to know online and offline Britain: OxIS 2019

Feelings of trust and safety are crucial elements influencing how we feel about being online. For many, the pervasive and persuasive narrative of suspicion around what happens to our personal data online can make us worried and less engaged online; while for others, these concerns are one of the reasons why they stay resolutely offline.

After a six-year gap since their 2013 report, the Oxford Internet Institute launched their latest national survey report this September at an event in London.

The particular focus of this report was on risks and the perceptions of risk around privacy and safety online, as well as containing more general statistics on internet usage.

Citizens Online was there to take notes and find out what the Oxford team had learned about what people think about being online and whether the factors we know make people more likely to be offline – age, low income and lower educational achievement – have shifted at all since 2013.

Some findings

  • OxIS survey respondents report virtually identical rates of bad experiences online in 2019 as they did in 2013 (the previous iteration of the survey)
  • Respondents are less concerned with threats now than they were 6 years ago – especially in relation to viruses. This may be to do with anti-virus software being installed by default on many new computers, leading to users thinking they are protected from harms
  • The survey also asks about actions people take to protect their privacy: 40% of people have taken some sort of action (see chart below for the breakdown)
  • Non-users (72%) are much more likely to be concerned with internet privacy threats than users (52%)

Some thoughts on the privacy findings

The chart below shows the percentage of current users who have taken action to reduce the risk from various privacy threats.

Concern with privacy online: 2013-2019, from the OxIS 2019 report, Oxford Internet Institute.
This graph shows the change in the percentage of internet users who agree that "the internet threatens privacy" - from 47% in 2013 to 52% in 2019. The graph also show the percentages of people who have taken various privacy actions (2019 data only): to keep contact details private: 39%; to keep medical issues private: 31%; to keep marital status private: 27%; to keep age privateL 27%; to keep shopping or purchases private: 26%.
This data comes from 1,484 users surveyed.
“Concern with privacy online: 2013-2019” – from the OxIS 2019 report, Oxford Internet Institute

The survey report suggests that “the fact that most people have not taken any actions to protect their privacy suggests a lack of concern or awareness.” However, surely this depends on whether people with concerns are aware of the steps they might take to protect their privacy: they may well be concerned but not know what to do about it, or might not trust the solutions they have been recommended.

The fact that “non-users are more worried about privacy threats than users” can be interpreted in different ways. It can be seen as causal: because they are more worried, they are not online (“if only we could make them less worried, they might go online”); it can be seen as symptomatic (because people have experienced things online that make them worried, they are now no longer online); it can be seen as critical: users are not cautious enough about the privacy threats. There seems to be an assumption here that users know better, which leads to the view that non-users are in need of education or enlightenment.

"Non-users are increasingly worried that going online might threaten their privacy. We suggest that the steady drumbeat of stories about privacy violations, theft of credit card credentials, and malware serve to raise the fears of offline respondents more than those with experience online, and make them more reluctant to go online. In this way the negative stories contribute to the continued existence of the digital divide, and they frustrate efforts to close it."

Perceived Threats to Privacy Online: the Oxford Internet Survey 2019, p16

Privacy worries are cited as the main reason for being offline by 10% of non-users (up from 1%). The idea that “privacy problems perpetuate the digital divide” may require a little more evidence, however. Why, actually, would non-users be more worried about privacy violations online than users? Unless the threats are indeed overblown by the media – but that is an assumption that is made by the survey authors, and needs to be examined more closely before “media scaremongering” is used as a reasonable part-explanation for the persistence of the digital divide.

There is something of a paradox around privacy and online behaviour: many people are concerned about privacy… but they are happy to give up their personal data in exchange for free services or products… but then (the survey suggests) they in turn are concerned about targeted online ads, based on the data they have submitted. (68% of people are “uncomfortable” with targeted ads).

Similar findings were reported in research by doteveryone (2018) on “The Understanding Gap,” which reveals that almost half (46%) of us “don’t like companies collecting information about [us], but it’s worth it for the quality and convenience of the services.”

It’s very invasive. They have too much power but we all want to use those sites so we tick the box.

quoted in doteveryone (2018) – People, Power and Technology: The 2018 Digital Attitudes Report

Relatively few people realise what data on them is collected and how services are paid for, while 91% of people say it’s “important to be able to choose how much data they share with companies”, but half (51%) “can’t currently find out that information.” 43% of people say there’s no point reading T&Cs because “companies do what they want anyway,” and 47% have felt they have “no choice but to sign up to online services, even where they have concerns.” So it is not as simple as making people aware (or scaring them) about privacy concerns – it is not always clear what the user is supposed to do.

The discussion at the OxIS 2019 launch event raised the question of how long this situation will continue – and whether public concern over targeted ads will result in greater caution about sharing data, or whether companies who gather our data are now too clever and powerful. There are significant issues here for policy, education and democracy.

Devices and locations: usage patterns and digital exclusion

As well as looking at privacy issues, the OxIS survey contained data on various other aspects and patterns of internet usage. Some of the most dramatic and interesting findings were around device usage, particularly the shift to mobile.

72% of the online population are now mobile internet users, up from 56% in 2013, and just 19% back in 2009. 3 in 10 users have no laptop or desktop computer: they are smartphone/tablet-only. The majority of users have a computer (laptop or desktop) and a mobile phone, with just 5% being computer-only.

The big distinction in activity patterns is between these computer-only users and those who use mobile internet (either mobile-only or mobile+computer): Computer-only users are usually the least-active online, and they are almost exclusively people in lower income brackets.


Clearly there are concerns about privacy and security online, and incidents such as data breaches will often make a juicy “bad news” story in sections of the media.

It is true that those offline have concerns about privacy, but only 10% of those offline said that privacy concerns were the main reason they were not online.

With nearly 4 million adults across the UK never having been online (ONS, 2019), this suggests that there are potentially 400,000 people who could decide to try being online if they were convinced that their privacy concerns would be addressed. However, many of these will have other reasons for not being online.

The majority (74%) of those offline say the main reason is that they are “just not interested”. This may be the hardest motivation to change, compared to other issues such as privacy concerns that potentially could be (slightly) more easily addressed.

It remains the case that most non-users of the internet are offline by choice.


This blog was authored by Citizen Online and published here, on October 14th 2019

Citizens Online is a UK charity committed to researching, addressing and promoting the issues of digital inclusion. In partnership with a wide range of collaborators, Citizens Online has specialised in tackling digital exclusion and improving people’s essential digital skills since 2000.