Do Millennials Understand Online Privacy?

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Millennials are all about using the Internet to its fullest potential. However, when it comes to online privacy, are they doing it right?

Millennials are under scrutiny. Survey after survey pits those ages 18 to 34 against members of previous generations hoping to find out what makes Millennials tick. Why? Millennials are the first age group to be raised in an Internet-centric world. Their parents, who fall into the 34 to 54 category, knew life pre-Internet, and have incorporated "The Net" into their lifestyle as it made sense. As a result, these two groups have typically been portrayed as having very different ideas when it comes to privacy in the digital world … or do they? According to a survey conducted by Fortinet in 2014, Millennials and their parents have a lot in common – despite a few major differences.

Millennials vs. Gen-X

Most surveys are devoted to figuring out what Millennials want to buy. Then there are research organizations such as Pew Research, which are watching how Millennials bend and mold the Internet to their needs. The Pew Research survey Millennials Confident. Connected. Open to Change was considered the seminal word in 2010 for comparing Millennials to past generations. The following slide from the report provides a glimpse of why each generation felt it was unique. What stands out is how important Millennials say that technology is to them and their generation.

part of a survey asking each generation what makes them unique

OK, so Millennials may think technology is a more defining feature of their generation, but does that mean they use differently or feel differently about it? One new area of interest for those who study generational differences is online privacy. The perception is that Millennials look at online privacy in a way that prior generations find disturbing. To see if that's true, Fortinet commissioned Lightspeed Research to survey Millennials and the next older age group, Gen-X, and compiled the results in its 2014 Privacy Survey.

The survey interviewed 150 people in two age groups – Gen-X and Millennials. The number of men and women were split equally in each age group. The survey focused on four topics: password best practices, the value of personal data, snooping and online practices.

Password Best Practices

The first question: How often do you change your online passwords?

  • 37% of both Millennials and Gen-X change their online passwords only when prompted.
  • 30% (25% Millennial, 35% Gen-X) change passwords every three months.
  • 16% (19% Millennial, 13% Gen-X) change passwords once a month.
  • 9% (11% Millennial, 7% Gen-X) change passwords once a year.
  • 4% (5% Millennial, 2% Gen-X) change passwords every day.
  • 4% (2% Millennials, 5% Gen-X) never change passwords.

When asked if the participants used a password to access their phone:

  • 57% (63% Millennial, 51% Gen-X) of all participants said they did.

The most popular password was the four-digit PIN; the least popular: biometrics. The final question about password use referenced online accounts. Did participants use different passwords for each account?

  • 46% of both Millennials and Gen-X use different passwords for a few online accounts.
  • 40% of both Millennials and Gen-X use different passwords for every online account.
  • 7% of both Millennials and Gen-X use different passwords for their most sensitive accounts.
  • 7% of both Millennials and Gen-X use the same password for every online account.

The Value of Personal Data

Next, Fortinet wanted to learn what value each age group placed on certain data by asking the following question:

In the event of a personal privacy breach, which of the following items would you fear losing the most: medical information, mailing address, email address, financial statements, Social Security Number, tax returns, online passwords, contents of emails, Internet-browsing history or online purchasing history?

The top three choices were:

  • Both Millennials and Gen-X ranked Social Security Number as the most important.
  • Gen-X ranked mailing address as second-most important.
  • Millennials chose tax returns as second-most important.
  • Both Millennials and Gen-X ranked online passwords as third-most important.


Fortinet then asked the respondents if the NSA overstepped its bounds by snooping on US citizens:

  • 44% (41% of Millennial, 47% of Gen-X) felt the NSA overstepped its bounds.
  • 20% (22% of Millennial, 18% of Gen-X) did not have a strong opinion.
  • 19% (23% of Millennial, 15% of Gen-X) felt the NSA did what was necessary.
  • 17% (14% of Millennial, 20% Gen-X) did not know about the NSA snooping.

Fortinet also asked the participants if employers overstepped their bounds by snooping on employees:

  • 39% of both Millennials and Gen-X said any type of corporate monitoring is out of bounds.
  • 38% (37% Millennials, 39% Gen-X) said monitoring was all right if it involved work activities.
  • 12% (16% of Millennial, 9% of Gen-X) felt it was okay.
  • 11% of both groups had no opinion or were unsure how they felt.

Online Practices

Most people consider "online marketing practices" a point of contention between Millennials and other generations. Fortinet decided to find out by asking the respondents to answer whether they would knowingly share the following information with marketers:

  • 50% (53% Millennials, 46% Gen-X) would share personal email addresses.
  • 38% (35% Millennials, 41% Gen-X) would share no personal information.
  • 33% (31% Millennials, 35% Gen-X) would share personal mailing addresses.
  • 26% (28% Millennials, 25% Gen-X) would share personal phone numbers.
  • 9% (9% Millennial, 8% Gen-X) would share access to social media accounts.

Fortinet was curious as to what privacy settings the participants used in their social media applications:

  • 41% (40% Millennials, 43% Gen-X) adjust privacy settings to limit certain information.
  • 38% (41% Millennials, 35% Gen-X) use strict privacy settings.
  • 16% (15% Millennial, 17% Gen-X) use default privacy settings.
  • 5% (4% Millennials, 5% Gen-X) remove all privacy settings.

Respondents were asked about having concerns that personally identifying information could be shared or used against them:

  • 30% (23% Millennials, 37% Gen-X) said they do not post personal information.
  • 28% (27% Millennials, 28% Gen-X) said they were worried.
  • 19% (21% Millennials, 17% Gen-X) were not worried.
  • 18% (25% Millennials, 11% Gen-X) were concerned if information was shared with marketers.
  • 5% (4% Millennials, 7% Gen-X) were unsure of their feelings.

Interestingly, the results of the Fortinet survey do not validate the supposed chasm between Millennials and Gen-X everyone talks about. Could it be that both generations are adapting to the new Internet world? (Read another perspective on Millennials in Generation Y, I Think We Have Problems.)


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Michael Kassner

Michael Kassner is a veteran reporter of technology, wordsmith, and founder of MKassner Net (LLC).