LONDON: Three times as many UK consumers are concerned about companies sharing their personal information with other companies than government monitoring activity, a new survey has said.

TRUSTe, a data privacy management company, polled 2,011 British internet users for its annual Consumer Confidence Index and found that online trust was falling, with businesses bearing the brunt of growing mistrust.

The Index showed that 60% of internet users were more concerned about their privacy online than they were one year ago. Further, while 55% trusted most companies with their personal information online (down from 57% in 2013), fully 89% said they avoided companies they did not believe protect their privacy.

And among those whose fears had grown, 60% expressed worries about companies sharing their data compared to just 20% who were troubled by government practices. Further, 54% were concerned about companies tracking their online behaviour to target them with ads and content.

Ken Parnham, European Managing Director, TRUSTe, described the findings as “a wake-up call for businesses”.

"Lack of trust can starve businesses of valuable data and sales, restricting the lifeblood of the digital economy as people are less likely to click on ads, use apps or enable location tracking on their smartphones,” he added, as he called on businesses to take decisive action to address consumers' online privacy concerns.

The detailed statistics around the areas he highlighted make grim reading for marketers. Increased privacy concerns meant that 91% were less likely to click on online advertisements, while 78% avoided using smartphone apps they believed did not protect their privacy.

And for those hoping to reach consumers based on their whereabouts, almost two thirds of respondents (64%) were less likely to enable location tracking on their smartphones.

Nor were consumers merely exhibiting a passive reaction – 78% were more likely to check websites and apps for a privacy certification or seal.

An equivalent survey in the US revealed broadly similar trends, with 74% of internet users there more worried about online privacy now than a year ago and 89% avoiding companies that did not protect their privacy.

As Michael Brennan, executive director at consumer insights firm Trajectory put it in a recent breakfast briefing: "There's a consent issue" at the heart of this debate. So if covert tracking practices breed consumer mistrust, it's in a brand's best interests to be transparent about consumer data use.

WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell recently highlighted issues around data security as one of his five thoughts for the year ahead. Writing in the Huffington Post, he argued that businesses "are going to have to work harder to show the benefits that 'big data' brings to consumers and economies".

That meant educating the public and showing that companies were responsible custodians of people's information.

Data sourced from TRUSTe, Huffington Post; additional content by Warc staff