Commentary

Digital Natives Are Becoming 'Generation Invisible'

From hacked passwords to stolen photographs, 2014 has not been a good year for online privacy. As a result, it’s not much of a surprise to see that we’re becoming more worried about this issue than ever before. Across the 32 countries that GlobalWebIndex surveys, 58% now say that they are concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy -- a figure which has been rising slowly but surely every quarter since 2010. What’s more, this is a sentiment that cuts across demographics to be felt by virtually all groups in equal measure.

Of course, it’s pretty easy to say that you’re concerned about online privacy. It takes much more effort to do anything about it and to challenge the status quo. However, our latest research shows that this is one area where digital consumers are not just talking the talk: sizable groups are now taking direct and pro-active steps to safeguard their digital footprints. In the process, they are creating major headaches for traditional tracking techniques. 

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At the most mainstream end of the spectrum, over three-quarters of online adults say that they have deleted cookies so that websites will not remember them -- with 40% doing this on a monthly basis. Use of a private browsing window is equally widespread (nearly 50% have done so in the past month), whereas smaller -- but still significant -- segments are turning to ad-blocking (30%) and anti-tracking (20%) tools.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Proxy Servers are thriving too. For anyone who is unfamiliar with these tools, they allow people to bypass traditional connections and tracking methods to use the Internet via a remotely located server; essentially, it’s as if people are entering the Internet discretely via a side door rather than through the main entrance. At present, VPNs are still viewed as pretty niche tools used mainly by savviest or geekiest of Internet users. Worldwide, however, it’s over a quarter of online adults who say they have used one to connect to the Web. And while it might be just 7.5% who report doing this with the explicit aim of protecting their online anonymity, that figure translates to more than 100 million individuals across 32 countries. Hardly that niche, then -- especially if we recognise that this rather specialized behaviour is an extreme response to a sentiment felt much more widely (globally, just over half of online adults say they “prefer to by anonymous when using the Internet”).

Wherever we look, then, it’s clear that significant segments of Internet users are a lot more switched on in terms of their online privacy than is often acknowledged. While none of these tools is (yet) mainstream, we’re faced with the stark reality that weighty chunks of the online population are becoming -- and want to become -- increasingly hidden from view; they’re the “forgotten” internet users determined to shield their details and activities from media providers and advertisers alike.

For any brand or marketer out there, these figures should make for some pretty uncomfortable reading. But drill down into the demographics of online privacy behaviours and picture becomes starker still -- especially in relation to age. Currently, older segments are more likely than others about to be worried about their online privacy, but less likely to be taking any steps as a result of these concerns; in short, privacy-related concerns peak among the oldest age groups, whereas privacy-driven actions are more common in the younger age brackets.

Of course, this type of age distribution is hardly unusual when it comes to digital trends; youngest groups always tend to be ahead of the curve. Here, however, it carries some pretty major implications: among 16-34s, for example, using a private browsing window is already a majoritarian behaviour, scoring above the 50% mark. The same is true for deleting cookies.

Now, it has long been known that today’s youngest Internet users are digital natives -- completely accustomed to behaviours like second-screening and multi-networking. Increasingly, though, it looks like they’re becoming privacy specialists too -- the opt-out generation whose default setting is to deploy privacy-boosting tools. Unless brands and agencies start taking steps to address this, we might as well forget about targeting Gen Y or Z and prepare ourselves for the arrival of Generation Invisible.

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