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Report 2016: Consumers’ Privacy do not follow Pace in Digital Society

A new 2016 report from the Danish Consumers’ Council maps key challenges for Danish consumers in the digital era. A rapid digital adoption in Denmark has created a number of challenges for Danish consumers. In particular automatic data collection and correlation performed by both public and private actors challenge consumer privacy. Laws, consumers’ skill, as well as public institution’s and private businesses’ conduct, have not progressed in a way that adequately protects and empowers consumers’ in a digital market and public sphere. The report also points to solutions. There is a need for an updated regulatory data protection framework, a development of consumer skills that provide consumers’ with background knowledge of the life of and interests in their data and the advancement of privacy by design solutions in public and private business.

The report “Digital Challenges for Consumers in Denmark” is written by Gry Hasselbalch for the Danish Consumers’ Council and among others based on interviews with experts from the public and private sector, academia and civil society organizations in Denmark and a representative survey among Danish citizens.

The report can be downloaded here in Danish


A Digitalized Denmark

The report describes the challenges that arise in the wake of a rapid technological development in which Danish citizens’ everyday life over a very short time period have pertained a digital dimension. It describes a society and population that in general are advanced in the digital evolution, but also a society where solutions to digital challenges and legislation have not been able to follow pace.

Data collection, big data and privacy

A common theme in all expert interviews are the challenges associated with the automated collection, storage, interconnection and processing of data about Danish consumers’ digital interactions and relations. They describe the collection and use of data in the data era and the environment it creates for the consumer as foundational to many of the other challenges they mention.

The consequences of data collection are most often obscure to the individual consumer. Consumers do not experience these directly in their everyday lives, and therefore cannot understand the embedded interests in their data or see how their data is actually used. The potential risks are often future consequences for the individual consumer. Data about individuals are the foundation of many commercial digital media business models. Data is a new type of capital, and there are thus a number of interests in gathering consumer data.

The combination of digital streamlining and personalization and the challenges this creates for consumer privacy, is a theme in many of the experts’ descriptions. There are contrasting perspectives on correlating data on consumers across different public services. The difference lies in the objective to create user-friendly and streamlined public services and the privacy challenges this poses when all data is stored in one place or interfacing across services.

The Online Infrastructure

There are several challenges for consumers associated with the internet’s basic infrastructure. This includes both challenges in the technology itself (as e.g. user interfaces and the it systems) and it includes the business models and processes underlying the services that consumers use. One of the main characteristics is that the technology itself and the internet’s underpinning rationales, business models and interests are obscure for the individual consumer. Thus, the consequences of actions and use are also impalpable to the individual consumer. The technologies of the digital services described are not neutral. They are developed for different purposes based on different interests. According to the experts, a number of challenges also lie in the basic IT security of public and private digital solutions and services. Various risks for individual consumers are highlighted in this context, such as hacking of personal data, viruses and ransomware. Many of the experts also point out that one of the biggest challenges is that privacy in the private and public services have been down prioritized in the actual development of the systems. Employees are not trained properly, and user-friendliness is prioritised over security. Data protection has not been built into the design of a services.

The digital divide

It has come to a point where consumers need to be able to use digital services in order to access public services. In addition the use of online social media has become a prerequisite for participation in social life and the public debate in Denmark. The experts point to the fact that there is currently not many alternatives to digital public services and no user-friendly alternatives to the social media giants. This can for some community groups be a major challenge. Lack of skills and knowledge is greater within specific population groups, such as the elder population, which in turn has a direct impact on these groups’ involvement in society in general. Thus, there is a smaller part of the population that either due to lack of digital skills or confidence in public and private digital services are excluded from basic societal functions such as interaction with the public institutions and participation in the public debate. The “digital divide” in Denmark is first and foremost about difference in competences, which according to some experts also is based on socio-economic conditions.

Digital consumer knowledge and skills

Danes are ahead of many other countries when it comes to knowledge and skills due to high speed Internet access and use of digital media. However, there is still a lack of skills and knowledge of specific risks and challenges. The experts refer to different types of digital competencies which include both technical and critical and analytical skills. Digital skills are a prerequisite for participation in society and essential for consumer opportunities now and in the future. It is thus a new type of “education” that enables them as digital consumers.