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  • Which? research shows that users of social media care about how firms collect the personal data that is used to target the adverts they see.
  • Consumers were shocked by the extent of data collection from outside of the social media platform, through online tracking or other organisations uploading customer lists, and strongly felt that there was a lack of transparency over their use.
  • These data collection methods were generally considered less acceptable because of perceptions of legitimacy, privacy, the perceived proportionality and relevance of the data collection for targeted advertising and the level of control available.
  • People had a clear preference to opt-in, rather than opt-out, to data collection for targeted advertising and wanted to be asked to consent to each data collection method individually.


Online platforms like social platforms and search engines have brought huge benefits to consumers and provide their services at no financial cost. Consumers are, however, 'paying' with their data. Monetisation comes through serving targeted adverts based on data collected on an individual. For example, according to the CMA, Facebook has a share of almost 50% of the £5 billion display advertising market in the UK.

It has been widely recognised that consumers don’t have enough control over their data, especially at social platforms, and that this needs to change. However, it is not clear what increased control should look like. 

Our previous research has shown that consumers care how their personal data is used, and the CMA is considering requiring a default ‘opt in’ to targeted advertising at some platforms. However, there has been little research on whether consumers care how their data is collected for targeted advertising.

To address this we have carried out qualitative research to find out the attitudes of Facebook users to three different methods of data collection that the social media company currently uses to get the data on which they target their adverts. This article summarises our findings, and the full report can be found here.

Shock at extent of data collection

‘Oh my God... it’s basically everyone... everything’. Interview participant

We asked participants about three data collection methods, see information box above. They were shocked by the extent of data collection from outside of the social media platform, either through online tracking or by other organisations uploading customer lists. 

There was often a penny-drop moment when participants learnt how many websites and apps they had been tracked on. There were also perceptions of a lack of transparency over the use of such collection methods.

The acceptability of data use

‘You think your data is going to be fine and you are doing something completely away from Facebook, but that is all being sent back to Facebook.’ Interview participant

The use of data collected from third parties was not always seen as acceptable. It was felt by some that Facebook shouldn't 'follow' them off their own platform and many participants were uncomfortable with Facebook collecting information about them via online tracking either at all or with regards to certain information - it was considered 'intrusive'. A few also felt that the extent of data collection via third-party methods seemed excessive for the purpose of delivering targeted adverts - that it's 'over the top'

When considering how acceptable the various data collection methods were to them, participants reflected spontaneously on principles such as perceptions of legitimacy (the extent to which the data collection has been normalised as standard practice), privacy, perceived proportionality/relevance of the data to targeted adverts and the level of control available.

More control wanted

‘Never have we as citizens, everyone, had a chance to say actually this is how we feel about it, this is what we want... In a blue sky world, we would have a right to control the content... We’d have a right to opt in or out ...’ Interview participant

While most consumers had a preference to receive targeted rather than generic adverts, we found that people wanted more control over where the data was collected from. They had a clear preference to opt-in, rather than opt-out, to data collection for targeted advertising. 

They wanted to be asked to consent to each data collection method individually. Participants felt that a blanket consent process to receive either no targeted advertising or targeted advertising on the basis of data collected through all collection methods failed to give sufficient control. It would not allow them to consent to targeting, but to exclude data collected through methods with which they are uncomfortable. 


The research findings have implications for online platforms interested in understanding how their customers feel about different methods of data collection and regulators who want to give consumers more control over their personal data.

First, platforms need to be transparent about the use of different types of data collection methods for targeted adverts. Placing this information in privacy notices does not necessarily constitute transparency.

Second, informed consent should recognise the process used to gather data for targeting adverts, and not just whether advertising is targeted. 

Finally, the findings support the use of opt-in consent processes that are developed using “fairness for design” principles.

Article published 22.06.20

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email us at consumerinsight@which.co.uk

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