Privacy while shopping online worries Canadians — but it doesn't stop them, poll suggests

A growing majority of Canadians regularly shop online, despite concerns about what companies do with the pile of data being collected on them with every visit.

Almost 70% of young people polled say they shop online regularly, despite concern about personal data

Most respondents to a poll commissioned by Marketplace said they are concerned with how much data companies have about them online when they shop, but few are doing anything about it. ( Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

A growing majority of Canadians regularly shop online, despite concerns about what companies do with the pile of data being collected on them with every visit.

That's one of the main takeaways from a recent survey by CBC's Marketplace on Canadians' online shopping habits.

The results show that almost half of Canadians shop online at least once a month, a ratio that jumps to almost seven in 10 among those under 35.

And not just for small purchases, either. Three-quarters of respondents said they spend up to $200 a month online, and almost 10 per cent said they spend even more — up to $500.

But even as Canadians buy more online, they're less comfortable with the amount of private data they are being asked to hand over, even if they're only window shopping.

Marketplace commissioned the survey Nov. 7-14 of 2,010 Canadians 18 years of age and up who are members of the Angus Reid forum. A survey of that size typically yields an error margin of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

A slim majority of respondents said they were comfortable with giving out basic information such as a name and email address to set up an account with an online retailer. But anything more — including collecting data about shopping habits in order to offer discounts, or to promote specific products to you — made them uncomfortable.

Barely one in six respondents believe they have any sort of control over what marketers know about them online, and almost of half of respondents said they have effectively given up trying, agreeing with the statement "I have come to accept that I have little control over what marketers can learn about me online."

And yet, few are doing anything about it. More than half, or 57 per cent, said they were unfamiliar with the concept of "private browsing" which is an option on every web browser.

They're all slightly different, but basically achieve the same thing: when in private or "incognito" mode, your web browser won't track your searches, the pages you visit, or information you enter into forms.

That's the kind of information that retailers love to have about you, so they can tailor the offers and products they have, including the price they will charge you. If they know you have searched for that item before, they have been known to raise the price for it — which is perfectly legal.

Marketplace uncovered several instances of wildly different prices for hotels and airline tickets, based on who was doing the search and what their web history was.

All in all, the vast majority — 88 per cent — of respondents were of the view that companies should be more transparent about the customer data they collect and if they don't, almost as many (84 per cent) said the government should do more to regulate what companies do with all the personal information they collect about their prospective customers online.

"There's a lot of great laws in theory," technology expert and internet strategist Jesse Hirsh told the program. "But it's difficult to apply those laws when every consumer gets a different experience."

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