The right to privacy in the time of coronavirus: freedom’s last line of defence?

Dr Mihajlo Popesku, Head of Research, Auspex International
Catalina Bodrug, Research Scientist, Auspex International

Earlier this month, Auspex conducted two large-scale online surveys1 in the UK and Italy, focusing on residents’ behavioural and emotional responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown, with samples of 2,001 respondents in each country – representative by age, gender, region and socioeconomic class. 

As part of our analysis, we were able to identify various groups or segments in each country, with tendencies to engage in either constructive or destructive behaviours: those who panic and despair, those who remain calm and optimistic, and those who thrive and flourish in isolation. A full infographic report of our findings is provided here. One of the most interesting insights, for Share Foundation readers, was that people in both countries strongly reject the idea of data monitoring as a means of tackling the spread of the coronavirus.

We asked both British and Italian respondents to rate the acceptability of eleven actual and potential government interventions. An overwhelming majority of British and Italian residents were prepared to countenance certain measures to contain the epidemic, including closing pubs/restaurants (82% UK, 78% Italy), washing their hands for 20 seconds (84% UK, 73% Italy) and enforced staying at home (both 71%). For Britons, however, the monitoring of personal data ranked as the least acceptable measure, with an approval rating of just 16.7%. In Italy, the situation was not dissimilar, with the measure ranking second to last with an approval rate of 23.2%. What is more, residents of both countries are more likely to favour curfews and remaining in lockdown over having their personal data tracked.

These insights suggest that both Italians and Britons are aware of the importance and sensitivity of data protection rights, and that any attempt to infringe their privacy is generally regarded as the ultimate loss of freedom.

Our next exercise focused on understanding the differences between those people who accept and those who reject the monitoring of personal data. For this purpose, we merged the two samples, to try to find regularities and patterns, regardless of the respondents’ nationality. 

People who accept data monitoring (20%) are members of a more mature segment, with 1 in 3 aged over 65. Their emotional response to the crisis is ambivalent, with a mix of increased anxiety and happiness being most often reported. This is a very alarmed and anxious segment, with 2 in 3 reporting that their country is in a state of emergency. Compared to a month ago, this segment now feels more positive about government authority, wants to spend more time with family, feels more positive toward homeschooling, strongly supports closing borders to foreign visitors, is increasingly interested in social justice and “woke” activism, and feels more patriotic, creative and self-reliant. They believe that the best thing is for the country to remain united, and to get behind the Prime Minister, government and institutions – even if it means taking drastic actions to help tackle the spread of the disease. They see Covid-19 as a very serious situation, in which everyone is at risk. Fighting the coronavirus is a team effort, requiring mass compliance and the use of all means necessary – even if this involves the monitoring of personal data. On average, people in this group are better informed about Covid-19, are more compliant, and have engaged more frequently in constructive behaviours. In the event of institutional collapse/meltdown these people would help others and attempt to repair the damage. Their values are duty and tradition. Their lifestyle centres around travelling, exploration and education.

People who reject data monitoring (80%) make up a younger segment. These individuals report that the pandemic has inspired mostly the worst in them. They are feeling increasingly deflated, bored, stressed or tired as a result of the crisis. They are significantly more concerned with isolation and loneliness. This group is more likely to have experienced negative feelings such as anger or resentment over the government’s interventions, and in the event of civil unrest due to Covid-19, they are more likely to engage in mass protests or to leave the country. They also show significantly less support for and trust in institutions, and are more likely to be lax in complying with official instructions. They seem to be in a vulnerable position, as they were somewhat more likely to be professionally affected by the pandemic. This segment scored significantly higher in neuroticism, which indicates their fragility, sensitivity and irritability. They need to feel safe and secure. People in their social circle are mostly scared of not having enough to live with dignity. This group likes music, history, computer games and lifestyle content. They care about animal and workers’ rights.

Key takeaways:

  • The monitoring of personal data by government or state institutions as a means of tackling the spread of coronavirus is very unpopular, with the vast majority of both Italians and Britons finding it unacceptable.
  • Those who are supportive of their respective government, men, and members of the older generation are more likely to accept the monitoring of their personal data.
  • Those who are most fearful of Covid-19 are also the most likely to accept the monitoring of their personal data.
  • Data privacy appears to be the ‘final line of defence’ of personal freedom, as people are more willing to accept curfews and to be confined to their homes than they are to lose their privacy and have their personal information monitored or tracked – whatever the reason behind it.

1The study was fully anonymous and no personally identifiable information was collected. Our respondents came from a mix of 70 different access panels in the UK, and 73 panels in Italy, adjusting for the sample coverage and sampling frame bias.

Dr Mihajlo Popesku, Head of Research at Auspex International in London, is a marketing scientist working on applied social research and statistical modeling of consumer/voter behaviour.

Catalina Bodrug, Research Scientist at Auspex International in London, is working on research design and statistical data analysis. She graduated in Economy and Business at UCL.

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