Welcome to the heightened anxiety economy

We’ve been trading digital security for convenience

Over recent years public disquiet about the related issues of identity, data security and privacy has grown.  Last year, for example, facial recognition systems hit the headlines with lobby groups such as Liberty arguing that their usage breached human rights for privacy and cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Portland banning their deployment.

As lockdown made physical shopping and experiences impossible and more and more of us went online it became clear that, in such circumstances, our needs trumped our concerns.

However, that doesn’t mean that brands, retailers and digital platforms should ignore those concerns. For one thing, the trade-off scales won’t always tip so heavily in the direction of convenience. For another, consumers will naturally begin to gravitate towards digital solutions that offer better, safer and more transparent processes for logging in, account management and transacting.

But digital identity IS a growing concern

Our colleagues at Nelson Bostock UNLIMITED and Walnut UNLIMITED have recently conducted some research on digital identity amongst a representative sample of 2,007 of the British public and this uncertainty is definitely being reflected in public perceptions.

Some 61% of the public agree that the security of their digital identity is a growing concern for them. While there are subtle differences between different groups, the consistency of this concern across divisions of gender, age and social class is quite remarkable

The reasons behind this growing concern are fourfold.

1. Public debate about identity and data issues is increasing

Firstly, for many, their concern is being driven by the public debate around security, privacy, and data (mis)use. Some 59% of those who feel that the security of their digital identity is a growing concern say that the reason they feel this way is that they are ” hearing more about the risks to my online identity” these days and this perception is much more common amongst older consumers.

2. Online is booming and democratising

COVID has accelerated the digitalisation of our lives. More consumers have been encouraged by circumstance to try more digital solutions in more areas of their lives. Online learning, Zoom and Houseparty for work and social chats, online shopping (particularly grocery), online banking, telemedicine, and others. The impact of the digital world on our lives has never been greater and it seems unlikely that, having opened the door to digital solutions we could ever go back. While early adopters had bought into digital living pre-COVID, the pandemic has been notable for having brought large numbers of digital novices into the fold. 

There is a direct link between increased online activity and concern. Some 40% of those who feel that the security of their digital identity is a growing concern say that the reason they feel this way is that they are “doing more online than I did 6 months ago”. This perception is also more common amongst older consumers.

3. The magicians are starting to share their secrets

Much like Fight Club, the rule of magicians in the Magic Circle was never to divulge how their tricks were done. By and large the data-driven marketing magicians have been true to this mantra, keeping their practices hidden from public view. The recent public backlash against retail payments site Klarna for including them in an email marketing campaign despite them “never having shopped there” shows just how little understanding there is in the mainstream population of how the online world gathers and uses our personal data.

But it won’t stay this way for long.

Public data “outrages” such as the Cambridge Analytica “Great Hack” and the more recent Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” have pushed the issue of how our data is being used into the mainstream. Some 26% (and this is markedly higher for younger consumers) of those who feel that the security of their digital identity is a growing concern now say that the fact that they are now “more aware of what happens behind the scenes to my personal data by social media companies when I’m online” makes them more uneasy.

When we didn’t know how our data was being used manipulate our lives, sharing it was easier. As the magic circle is starting to open up, consumers are becoming more protective of their identity and data and more likely to want to see marketers recognise its value.

4. More of us are having bad data-sharing experiences

And finally, more and more people have been directly impacted by data breaches and identity theft – some 8% of those who feel that the security of their digital identity is a growing concern cite a personal identity data breach within the past 6 months as the reason, though this proportion is significantly higher for 18-24’s (12%) or 25-34s (13%) than it is for more cautious, older folk. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.

Allaying public identity fears

Data is becoming the life blood of marketing, underpinning everything from recommendation engines and personalisation of products, services and marcoms to rapid fulfilment processes. Brands are having to work ever harder to demonstrate to the consumers whose data they wish to access that they can be trusted with that data and innovators are working hard on the consumer’s behalf:


Nuggets is a decentralized, self-sovereign payments and ID platform. It stores your personal and payment data with blockchain, so you never have to share it with anyone – not even Nuggets. That means you can stop worrying about data breaches. If companies don’t have to store your data, it’s not there to be breached. You can still buy what you want and use the services you love. But without worrying about your privacy.

Moreover, the sector is advancing rapidly. Today’s conversations with consumers about data-sharing are just the beginning. Innovations in AI and machine learning are stretching the boundaries of what is possible. Context-based personalisation that goes beyond previous service histories to make individual recommendations based on in-the-moment needs that are affected by mood, location, weather, etc is becoming a reality. Such new innovations, powerful as they are, demand to be fed with vast streams of, potentially intrusive, real-time data and will only work if consumers:

  • Understand what the data they are being asked to share is being used for
  • Believe that they data they share will be used responsibly, not shared or sold to third parties
  • Feel that they will personally benefit from the sharing of the data, in the form of better products and services, discounts and promotions, more seamless processes, etc


Walnut UNLIMITED is an award-winning provider of consumer insight via a series of cutting-edge neuroscience and behavioural science approaches. Their omnibus survey speaks to 2,000 British people up to twice a week and provides answers within 72 hours.

Nelson Bostock UNLIMITED is an award-winning communications agency for business and technology brands, with particular expertise in digital security, autonomous vehicles, and AI.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.