1 Year Later: Gen Z College Students Weigh in Again on Personal Data Collection

Last February, I reported on some of the things my Gen Z students wrote in response to an assignment about who gains the most from the value exchange of convenience-for-personal-data. A year later, I gave the same assignment with the same supplemental readings to students, and the results were notably different.

Last February, I reported on some of the things my Gen Z students wrote in response to an assignment about who gains the most from the value exchange of convenience-for-personal-data between consumers and marketers.

A year later, I gave the same assignment with the same supplemental readings to a similar group of 40 students from Rutgers School of Business Camden, and the results were notably different.

Last year, I wrote, in “Gen Z College Students Weigh-in on Personal Data Collection — Privacy Advocates Should Worry”:

“Some Gen Zers don’t mind giving up their personal data in exchange for the convenience of targeted ads and discounts; others are uneasy, but all are resigned to the inevitability of it. However, the language they use to describe their acquiescence to data collection should be troubling to privacy advocates.”

This year’s students are far more concerned about the collection and sale of their personal data, but they are just as resigned to the inevitability of it. At the same time, some bask in the advantages it brings them and they’re sympathetic to the needs of marketers to provide a personalized data-driven experience to consumers.

The privacy concerns of the current group are more pronounced than the previous group.

“I used to believe that the consumer benefitted from the perks of technology. But more and more, I believe that marketers benefit more. Social media, search engines, TVs, refrigerators, Alexa or Google Home, Kinsa Thermostat are all ways that marketers can reach the consumer with things we use in our everyday lives. Some people don’t even realize they’re feeding right into it just by providing some information about yourself.”

Another wrote:

“Privacy has almost become a thing of the past. Places like our kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms have transformed from places behind closed doors to areas that are willingly shared with thousands of others on the receiving end of the data being collected for business purposes.”

Yet, like last year’s group, they are resigned to giving up personal data for access to information and services.

“Consumers are beginning to realize how often what they do, speak, and read are all being recorded. Personally, I’ve been more aware than ever of what is being tracked. I’m more aware of every ad I look at and every website I clicked on. This lifestyle is something that can’t be avoided.”

A common complaint involves the lengthy user agreements that consumers must accept to use web-based services and Internet-connected devices:

“This type of ultimatum often means that consumers regularly grant permission on their personal devices, rather than lose their access to a particular product.”

The proliferation of the Internet of Things may be behind much of the change in attitude since last year. (Caveat: I confess that I’ve warned about small sample sizes in the past [“Beware the Small Sample”]. I’m not drawing quantitative conclusions here, but rather reporting on a trend from qualitative research done with 40 students each year).

“Some people who purchase these tech-savvy devices often don’t understand the policies of the product. Understanding the policy and happily opting-in for your information to be used is one thing, but complying because you’re unsure is another. Did you know that brands can start tracking your information at the age of 13? How can a child understand the policy and process of how this works if a grown adult cannot?”

Another stated:

“The terms of agreement can exceed 10,000 words and not be accessible unless the consumer searches the web for it. Consumers don’t get the full story of how much the companies invade their personal lives. Even aspects like your political preference are being monitored and can aid in influencing your votes.”

One student is mounting a fierce resistance:

“I am one of those people that have a Post-it over the camera on my laptop. I shut off the location on my phone, even though I feel like it is being monitored without my consent a lot of the time. My smart TV is not connected to the Internet, and I rarely use streaming devices, such as Netflix or Hulu — if I do, it is usually on my computer. Devices like Google Home and Alexa completely freak me out and I do not believe I would ever purchase one for my home. Even some of the newer home security systems — like Xfinity Home or the video doorbell, Ring — introduce new ways for people to hack in and monitor your personal activity.”

Data leaks and potential misuse are another concern. One student worried about home assistant devices mishearing innocuous phrases as legitimate commands to record and send private conversations:

“Families could be going through a family matter and these devices are listening and recording what is being said. Next thing you know, it is being sent to your boss or colleagues who did not need to hear or know what is going in in the comfort of your home. Also, the refrigerators that know exactly what is inside can share this information with marketers who then share it with insurers who can possibly charge consumers more for unhealthy diets.”

But it’s not all gloom and worry. One student who recently booked a trip to Disney World was delighted by the collection and use of her personal data:

“Being able to get discounted magic bands and Disney exclusive accessories catered for my needs has been a huge bonus. This also benefits Disney, as they are getting my credentials and can alter their research based on my specific data. A part of the reason they are so successful is because of how personal they make the process feel. Even from the first search, they are there to help guide you and aid in your conversion to purchase. (They) get you to come back, because they have that initial information and the personal details of your preference.”

(BTW, how great is Disney? Offering discounts on those magic bands that they use to track your movement and purchases throughout the park. They not only get you to agree to it, they get you to pay for it and be grateful for the discount).

So the time may be right for privacy advocates to gain a foothold among the generation whose members have gone so willingly into the world of sharing personal data.