Academic Director, YouGov

Cookies are a fearful monster of the Internet, it seems, while having money or information stolen online is a major concern among British netizens. This is according to results from a new survey of everyday concerns about Internet use.

The survey was fielded online to a nationally representative sample of 2068 British adults, asking respondents to identify their top concerns about going online. The aim of this study was in part to compare levels of concern about data collection from private companies versus that of the government.

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Interestingly, respondents are significantly more concerned about the collection of personal information by private companies than of data collection by government organisations, and more concerned about private companies sharing this information with other companies than about companies sharing it with the state.

In other words, intrusion from online companies and criminals seemingly trumps fears of the snooping state and ‘big brother’.

Respondents were shown the following question. As Table 1 shows, online theft is the strongest concern among respondents by far, followed by Internet companies sharing personal data with other companies, and children having access to inappropriate content and communications:

Thinking about when people use the Internet, which of the following issues, if any, concern you the MOST? (Please tick up to three)



Having money or personal information stolen online (cyber crime)


Internet companies sharing personal data with other companies


Children accessing content or communications of a sexual nature online


Internet companies sharing personal data with government organisations


The UK Government collecting personal data


Bullying via the internet (cyber bullying)


Damage to your reputation from something posted online


None of the above


Don't know



Results also show some obvious differences between political camps. UKIP supporters are much more concerned about Government intrusion, for example, than Conservatives. Where 20% of Conservatives list internet companies sharing data with the government among their top concerns, 36% of UKIP voters do the same. Similarly, while 15% of Conservatives list Government data collection as a top concern, 37 % of UKIP supporters do the same.

In a follow-up question about which of these issues concerned respondents the most, stolen money or personal information again topped the list, followed by children accessing inappropriate content/communications. Also notably, female respondents lead males by 9% in the proportion citing this as number one concern overall.

When it comes to familiarity with Internet cookies, almost 3 in 4 (73 %) say they are familiar with the subject, with similar majorities among all sub-groups, perhaps notably including age: 65 % of people aged over 60 years say they are very or fairly familiar with the subject.

In reality, however, results suggest that Britons might not be as knowledgeable about cookies as they think. Respondents where shown a series of 6 statements, including three correct and three inaccurate. A majority answered correctly in four out of six occasions:

-63 % correctly stated ‘False’ that “Internet cookies are only used for advertising or market research”.

-70 % correctly stated ‘False’ that “Once a cookie has been downloaded and stored on a computer, it cannot be deleted”.

-75% correctly stated ‘True’ that “Cookies can be blocked by changing the settings in your internet browser”.

-65% correctly stated ‘True’ that “Information gathered about you through a website’s cookies can be shared with other companies and organisations without your permission”.

In two cases, however, the sample was much less certain about the facts:

-29% said it was true that “Cookies can be used to steal and gather data from other parts of your computer, even when you’re offline”, while a further 33% said they didn’t know, versus 38% correctly saying the statement was ‘False’.

-Similarly, only 24% correctly said it was true that “A cookie cannot be used as a computer virus”, while 40% chose ‘Don’t know’ and 36% said it was false.

So somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population respectively believe cookies can roam around your offline computer stealing data, and duly present a virus threat.

In reality, cookies do many things, and helping advertisers to target consumers is only one of them. Cookies also have a fundamental role in making basic features of the Internet work: keeping us logged into websites, facilitating smooth navigation between pages, recording our preferences or settings, and helping shopping baskets to deliver items to check-out. They can also stop us from seeing the same advertisements too many times, and record trends in user activity that enable website owners to improve their services. As simple text files, rather than programs, however, there are two functions that cookies can’t do, which includes stealing, deleting or reading information from the user’s computer, or operating as a virus.

So it may be the cookie monster is still a bigger problem for the kitchen than the office.

See full results

Fieldwork was conducted online between 1-2 September, 2014, with a total sample of 2068 British Adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

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