The Limits to Digital Consent

In collaboration, The New Design Congress and Superbloom present a new report - The Limits to Digital Consent: Understanding the risks of ethical consent and data collection for underrepresented communities. Through a series of interviews conducted in mid 2020 with advocates for individuals and communities whose lives are often dramatically affected by data surveillance, this report reveals the significant unaddressed gulf between designer intentions and best practices for consent, and the potentials or examples of real harm to individuals and communities that are unaddressed or amplified by digital consent.

Whether seeking to deploy private analytics or develop partnerships for research, user data collection and analysis comes with a high degree of fast-moving risk. Tool-building teams often look to consent models as a solution to addressing (truthfully acknowledging) risk. Ethical, easy to read consent interactions can be extremely challenging to develop given the complexity of the systems and tools, particularly when trying to to reject dark UX patterns, and account for power imbalances inherent in digital data collection that can lead to recurring instances of weaponised design.

How effective are today’s ethical consent paradigms? Do they build the outcomes they seek? How well do they perform within broader information networks across the internet? Do ethical digital consent systems truly inform users of the impacts of data collection, and how does it handle changes in the lives of the consenting user or the system itself?

Our research finds that current attempts to cultivate informed consent into data-driven systems likely fall short of their stated goals due to a host of issues including insufficient understanding of the power dynamics inherent to organizational politics, network complexity at scale, political accountability, and the second- or third-order effects of different designs of local-first data strategies. In coming to these findings, the study documents inherent threats and risks for consent-driven digital technologies that current approaches to informed user consent do not address.