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We Fear for Our Online Privacy, But Do Little to Protect It

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We are all concerned about online privacy, but not enough to do much about it, apparently. Americans are more afraid of having their online privacy violated in some way than they are about declaring bankruptcy or losing their jobs, according to a new survey from Opera Software and market-research company YouGov that was released today to coincide with Data Privacy Day. But despite these fears, fewer than two-thirds of those surveyed used safe passwords, only about half deleted their browsing history, and just 15 percent used software that made it difficult for websites to collect personal information. Which raises the question: as more web browsers like Firefox and IE9 are offering “do not track” options for users, will anyone actually use them?

The Opera and YouGov survey found that 25 percent of Americans worry about having their online privacy violated, compared with 23 percent who are afraid of having to declare bankruptcy and 22 percent who are afraid of losing their jobs. The study also surveyed opinions in Japan and Russia, and Internet fraud as a result of privacy breaches was in the top four fears in each country, with between 22 and 29 percent agreement (fear of being injured in a car accident was the number one concern in Japan and the U.S., while 40 percent of Russians said they were worried about relationship problems).

In terms of who Americans are concerned about when it comes to their personal privacy online, the survey found that 35 percent of respondents were worried about the government collecting information about them, while just 15 percent were concerned about the data that social networks collect. Sixteen percent said they weren’t worried about anyone getting information about them online. A majority of respondents (54 percent) agreed that they should be responsible for protecting their own privacy online, while just 25 percent believed that this was the responsibility of web companies.

Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, and Microsoft (s msft) have both said that they support a “do not track” feature that would allow users to turn off data tracking by websites and services via a setting in their browser. Mozilla’s head of global privacy and public policy, Alex Fowler, wrote about the company’s proposal to support this idea and how it might work earlier this week. Google (s goog) has also launched a “keep my opt-outs” setting extension for its Chrome browser that is designed to do something similar.

But as pointed out by privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian, who has been involved in helping create and promote the idea of a “do not track” standard, many of these features will not be of much use unless sites and software support them — and unless advertisers and others who collect such information are effectively forced to abide by a user’s choice. That, Soghoian says, is going to take some kind of action from the Federal Trade Commission or other government agency that can compel companies to adhere to those standards, something the FTC said in a recent draft report on online privacy that it is prepared to do. How it plans to do that remains to be seen.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Batikart

10 Responses to “We Fear for Our Online Privacy, But Do Little to Protect It”

  1. If privacy really mattered to the browser people, then I would NOT have ads for Netflix and others when I have my Safari Preferences set to Block Pop-Up Windows.

    Spam is a different matter. It seems I receive much spam because someone I have done business with in the past has sold its customer data. For all I know, it is Google that is selling the data.

    This is just another reason (privacy concerns) that I don’t do Facebook. They seem to believe users WANT their info out there when, in fact, one should have 100% privacy until he gives permission for his info to be shared. From all I have read, privacy on FB requires one to opt out.

  2. Posting my last comment, as if to prove a point, firefox is waring about potential XSS issues. To quote from the article:
    many of these features will not be of much use unless sites and software support them

  3. Mozilla and Microsoft are disguising motion as activity. Javascript Cookies and Flash cookies are the two major privacy violators. Not using Flash and disallowing Javascript would eliminate most of these problems. Unfortunately, All of the browsers use some sort of javascript engine, which allows these privacy violations.

    Designers, marketeers, and data scrapers insist the use of these technologies are ‘features’ and get companies either explicitly or implicitly to go along with them.

    Your site alone use an amazing number of trackers, starting with WordPress stats,(the most benign of the bunch)and continuing on with Google Adsense, Google Analytics, Quantcast, CrazyEgg, Clicktale, Federated Media,Comscore Beacon, Chartbeat,Bizo and Clicktale.
    [Note: You and Yours is used in the corporate sense below]

    No if you want to respect your visitors privacy and not use it as a gambit for an article you will have to step up to the plate. The third party privacy exemption figleaf is wearing thin,
    “You should be aware that GigaOM cannot control the use of cookies (or the resulting information) by GigaOM’s third-party partners or advertisers.”

    But you are not alone here. Here is a bit about All Things Digital

    The notion of a national Do Not Track list is beyond dumb.
    The FTC is the Last agency to use, as their record usually requires death or disfigurement for action.

    There is no way to effectively police such a thing(think spammers for a second), and outside of taking the site offline for various periods for offenses and fining ad networks into bankruptcy, you will not change these practices. Unless you step up.

    Either it is your site or it belongs to the advertisers, in which case nothing you can say about ‘respect or privacy’ means a damn thing. Because everybody else can point to you and say GigaOm uses it so it must be okay.

  4. Mathew,

    Great article. Here’s a simple solution to solving the Privacy problem. Add a new menu option to the browser. Inside that menu option add additional menu items related to the user, the device and location. Allow the individual to to control each element individually. Finally add an advanced menu that includes a “whitelist” which the user can customize.

    Here’s how it works. I trust GigaOm with my data, therefore you’re on my whitelist and whenever I go to your site, my personal data goes with it. I then change my mind and decide not to trust GigaOM – I simply remove you from the whitelist. Now none of my data goes to the web site.

    Bottom line – I remain in control of my data. Anything that does not allow that will fail, simply because I have now way of knowing if “GigaOm” or other sites are honoring the Firefox idea. (BTW, all the data goes to GigaOm via headers, just like the firefox idea but with control).

    Problem solved.


    5o9 Inc.

      • And as the bard says ” herein lies the rub”. Privacy (like security) is a process NOT a product. If checking a box is too labor intensive then there’s little hope for privacy. Firefox just added some headers but set the default to off and there’s no mechanism to police the content providers.

        Privacy is myth – you have none, because invariably you want none.