‘Big data’ has huge potential – but it’s stoking public concerns over privacy. Ipsos MORI’s Gideon Skinner and Anne Charlton explain the latest research.

Ipsos MORI’s research on privacy and personal data for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, published in May, shows that the topic is very important to people. However, attitudes depend on the specific context: who’s using the data, what for, and under what conditions. Asked whether they trust the government to protect their personal data, 55% of respondents said they do; only 38% said the same of private companies.

The control the public have over their data is also important. While only 3% are happy for the government to share their data with private companies without their consent, 12% would accept such sharing if they have the chance to opt out, and 26% would agree if their consent is given via an opt-in instead. Still, 45% say such sharing should not be allowed at all. 

The poll also shows some support for UK intelligence agencies accessing personal data, including phone numbers called and people emailed – but only in the right circumstances. A total of 61% would support this if the person in question is suspected of minor crimes, and 88% would support it where investigators suspect them of terrorist activities. Where that person is involved in a criminal investigation but not a suspect, there is much less support: only 22% support the accessing of personal data in the case of minor crimes, and a majority (54%) oppose it even in cases of serious crime.

Much of the debate about privacy has been about appropriate scrutiny of intelligence work. Our research shows the public believe that monitoring and approving requests for surveillance actions should be a responsibility of the judiciary rather than of politicians or parliament: 75% say that they’d have confidence in a senior judge’s ability to hold intelligence agencies to account, compared with 44% who say they would trust the prime minister or another minister to do so. 

So what does all this tell us? The public are concerned about data sharing, but much depends on the context: the purpose of the data sharing, and the oversight and rules governing its sharing, are all significant in shaping public opinion. Policies that require data sharing can work, but only if the right safeguards are put in place. 


Gideon Skinner is research director and Anne Charlton is research manager at Ipsos MORI

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