On Privacy, What Consumers Say Isn’t What They Do

In polls consumers express serious concern about their online privacy, but their actual behavior online often doesn’t track with that. So what are digital businesses supposed to do about that?

Several investors in privacy-related ventures discussed that conundrum at the pii2011 conference, on a panel called “The Business of Privacy.” Some points that came up:

»  It’s clear that what users say about privacy conflicts with the actual choices they’re making online. “On the one hand, you have Gallup poll data that says, if you put a Do Not Track option in front of a user, 80 percent would choose it,” said Jim Brock of PrivacyChoice. “But when you put it in front of them in a targeted ad, or in one of the other new methods they’re trying, less than 1 percent are using it. For companies, that’s a badge of success–that so few people will choose that nuclear option.” Then again, the low numbers of consumers choosing enhanced privacy options may simply be a result of how those options are presented. “Firefox puts Do Not Track into the browser, but then puts it in the ‘Advanced Settings’ menu–of course, no one is going to use it,” said Brock.

»  “A lot of times people are voting against their own interests on privacy and security,” said Mike Maples, managing partner at Floodgate. “That suggests either they don’t care, or they’re making a calculated choice about it,” recognizing that the data trade is worth it for the free services they’re getting. “A lot of people on Facebook don’t care about their privacy.”

Christine Herron of Intel (NSDQ: INTC) Capital responded to that point: “I think people don’t know how to use Facebook.” When her mother-in-law put up photos of her toddler on Facebook that she was uncomfortable with, Herron had to investigate what options would allow the photos to remain up but control who could see them. “I had to dig into Facebook to find [those controls].”

»  How will the explosion of mobile computing change the privacy “deal” presented to consumers? It will likely have to get a lot more simple, suggested Brock of PrivacyChoice.”The mobile form factor is going to force people to do something that is readable.” Something that simply tells consumers simply, what does this app do? “I want to see that in an iconic, short way.”

»  Going forward, consumers will need better control over and “ownership” of their information–and at the very least, they need to get better access to the heaps of data that are being collected about them. To take a pre-internet example, the way credit bureaus have treated sensitive consumer hasn’t been viewed favorably by many (and still isn’t). But there was general agreement that establishing a consumer right to view that data was a big step forward.

»  Some businesses are gathering too much data, and those heaps of data–which aren’t really being used–do pose privacy concerns. “It’s almost like these hoarding TV shows,” said Christine Herron of Intel Capital. “You need specific bits–but people are collecting everything, just in case. So you have these data hoarders.

»  One thing we might see more of in the future: companies seeing a business opportunity in helping people remedy their privacy mistakes. “There’s a flourishing business where people get tattoos when they’re young, and then they have laser tattoo removal later on in life,” noted Raman Khanna of ONSET Ventures. “We could see the same thing with private data.”

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