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Privacy Law and Policy Reporter

Privacy Law and Policy Reporter (PLPR)
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Clarke, Roger --- "Public attitude to privacy - MasterCard's Australian survey" [1996] PrivLawPRpr 67; (1996) 3(8) Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 141

Public attitudes to privacy -- MasterCard's Australian survey

Roger Clarke

A recent survey of attitudes of Australian business organisations to privacy by Boykett, O'Reilly and Tucker of Monash University (3 PLPR 101) showed a high level of awareness of privacy concerns but considerable inconsistencies in attitudes and practices.

Even more important than the attitudes of company executives are those of the general public. Yet, despite the widespread acknowledgement that Australians are very concerned about privacy, very few authoritative surveys of public attitudes have ever been conducted. The key exceptions are those commissioned by the Privacy Commissioner in 1990-1994, and reported in the Commissioner's Information Paper Number 3: Community Attitudes to Privacy (August 1995 -- see <2 PLPR 155> for review).

During 1996, a major study was commissioned by MasterCard International. This paper outlines the results of the study. Not only are the results up-to-date; they also provide the first-ever insight into the significant differences that exist between segments of Australian society.

The survey

MasterCard is one of the major providers of payments services, worldwide, and is well aware of the potential privacy impacts of its business. Between March and December 1996, it conducted in Canberra the world trial of its MasterCard Cash stored-value card. It commissioned this survey of privacy attitudes as part of that project.

The survey was planned by XamaX Consultancy Pty Ltd, and conducted in mid-1996 by the Canberra office of Roy Morgan Research. It conducted a series of focus groups in Sydney, to explore issues in depth, and test the questionnaire terminology. The main survey comprised 1200 telephone interviews, Australia-wide.

Aggregate findings

An early question sought the so-called `unassisted' level of public concern, that is, that which was reported prior to the respondent becoming aware that the purpose of the survey was to explore people's attitudes to privacy. Very few Australians were `not at all concerned' about these issues, and the vast majority were divided between `concerned' and `very concerned'. On the other hand, drug abuse, the environment, unemployment, and law and order were all of somewhat greater concern to the respondents than privacy.

The classes of data that caused the greatest concern were `everyday banking transactions' (66 per cent of Australians would be very concerned), closely followed by `major financial transactions' (61 per cent) and income (57 per cent), whereas the corresponding figure for everyday shopping habits was only 37 per cent. A high level of concern was also voiced in relation to medical history (58 per cent). Home address and home phone number were also of significant concern, at 41 per cent and 39 per cent.

Government computer networks were perceived as a threat by the greatest proportion of people (80 per cent) and were perceived to be the single main threat to personal privacy by the largest proportion of people (41 per cent).

The particular activities that elicited the greatest level of concern were:

There was also considerable concern about:

Respondents were emphatic about the importance of organisations seeking permission to use data, or at the very least advising the person about its use. It appears that some use without permission might be acceptable; but advice about the data's use was clearly very high indeed among people's priorities. This was even the case among people who at the commencement of the interview were not at all concerned about privacy.

A significant minority of Australians (45 per cent) said that, when purchasing goods or services, they had been asked for personal information that they felt was not necessary. Of those, 61 per cent reported that they had decided not to continue with a financial transaction because of a feeling that their privacy was being invaded. This is equivalent to a remarkably high 28 per cent of the total population.

A series of questions was also asked about privacy issues related to payment cards. That section is usefully read in conjunction with the relevant sections of the report on stored-value cards by the Australian Commission for the Future, of June 1996, which also conducted focus groups, and which contains a chapter and a detailed appendix on privacy aspects.

Privacy attitudes differ

The most valuable new information contained in the report relates to sub-groups of the Australian population. This appears to be the first occasion that information has become available about the differing perspectives of Australian population segments.

Differences were investigated based on attitudes to technology, gender, region, age and socio-economic grouping. Significant differences were identified based on gender, with women much more concerned about a range of privacy threats. This was particularly marked in the case of the Internet, door-to-door selling, access to home address and home phone-number, everyday shopping habits, and unfettered access to so-called public registers, such as the electoral roll.

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome, however, was the differences that the survey disclosed based on socio-economic level. The conventional wisdom, as expressed by one-time Minister for the Australia Card, Neal Blewett, has always been that `privacy is a bourgeois value', of greater concern to the well-off than to the little Aussie battler. How wrong we all were.

The survey identified four strata, based on education, occupation and income. Concern about privacy actually increased, quite consistently, from the `highest' to the `lowest' strata. The general fears were confirmed by answers to questions about such specific threats as government agency information-sharing, tele-marketing, consumer profiles, intrusive questioning, and access to public registers. The key exceptions to the pattern related to financial data.


The data arising from the MasterCard survey confirms that Australians generally are concerned about many privacy issues, and that they are very concerned indeed about several matters, most markedly the intrusive behaviour of governments.

The results also gives rise to the inference that white-collar Australians have a moderate level of understanding of information technology, and are reasonably prepared to compromise their privacy in return for benefits. Blue-collar Australians, on the other hand, feel powerless against governments and marketers, and are sceptical and nervous about the growth of surveillance technologies.


The MasterCard Report -- The 36-page document, `Privacy and Payments: A Study of Attitudes of the Australian Public to Privacy -- Summary and Findings', is available, gratis, from MasterCard International, 146 Arthur St, North Sydney NSW 2060, c/- Ms Leanne Flodin, tel: (02) 9959 5277.

The Australian Commission for the Future (ACFF) Report -- The 184-page document, `Smart Cards and the Future of Your Money', is available for $195 from ACFF, 30 Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000, tel: (03) 9903 8885, email:, web:

Roger Clarke is Principal, XamaX Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra and Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University. He provided consultancy support to MasterCard International in relation to the survey reported on in this publication.

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