Americans 'Deeply Concerned' About Online Privacy...Kinda, Sorta

For as long as I have been covering online advertising and the privacy issue (let’s say 1994) there has always been a massive disconnect between what people say about their concerns over privacy and data and their online actions. In most polls, American seems shocked…SHOCKED, they say, about the amounts of data collected about them without permission and the sharing that goes on among third parties.

And yet, after voicing this worry, most of us go about our usual online travels without opting out of much of anything or blocking anyone from anything. I can’t tell you how many times many of us covering these issues expected that we would finally hit a “third rail” in data collection, where consumers really would rise up and insist on greater safeguards: When search behaviors got folded into ad targeting? When phones were able to track user activities? By all accounts, most of us routinely tap YES when just about any app asks for permission to track our location, even if it has nothing to do with the functionality of the app. So how concerned are we?

Well, when you ask us about it within the confines of a poll, we seem ready to light our hair over data collection. In the newest survey of just over 1,000 Americans by Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies and Craig Newmark, a whopping 74% say they have some level of concern (“very or somewhat”) about having too much personal information online. Although the authors of this survey seem to think that the numbers indicate a high level of concern among Americans on data collection and distrust of third parties, I am not so sure. 55% of respondents say they think people put too much personal information online. Since that is the kind of question that almost always prompts a “yes” response, I am actually surprised the number isn’t larger.

When it comes to the “cookies” that have been driving Web interactions and analysis for years, 73% say they are concerned about having them placed in their browser -- but most estimates I have seen suggest that less than half that number actively delete or block cookies. A bit more than a third or respondents in this survey say they have found cookies on their system, even though we all have them.

I think the more troubling statistics from this survey relate to trust in specific online entities, something that likely does influence behavior in subtle ways. A clear majority of 57% say that they have little or no trust in social media sites, and only 22% say they have "some" trust. Not surprisingly, seniors expressed about twice as much concern over data exposure as those under 35, and their trust in social media was lowest. Only 16% of even younger users trusted how social media sites might handle their privacy and data, however. Which says to me that the ever-changing privacy policies at social nets like Facebook in particular have an impact on user perceptions. How those perceptions in turn affect user behaviors, regard for advertisers, etc., is worth a more detailed study.

But the general level of distrust and presumptions of publisher complicity are strikingly high. Most users asked seem to presume that content providers are selling out their visitors to advertisers wholesale. For instance, 59% of people asked feel their social networks are selling their contact information to others, while 64% feel that way about the Web sites they have provided contacts to. And more than half feel the same way about online services and apps.

American are mixed on whether regulation is needed to police their privacy. Only 36% of respondents felt current protections were too weak, while 29% found them reasonable, and 10% too strict. The desire for stronger privacy correlates with age, with only 23% of those under 35 finding laws too weak on the issue, and 50% of those over 65 thinking so. It is curious to me that it is the younger users who don’t seem to want government more involved in their online lives, while older users seem to welcome more control.

But the rub to all of this of course is whether people take action on the concerns they express to pollsters. When confronted with a Terms of Service agreement, 42% say they skim it, then agree, and another 24% say they just click. I suspect that even those figures are inflated by people’s self-consciousness in answering a poll question. Only 17% say they carefully read a TOS before clicking. God bless them, and I hope they have time for other things in their lives.

Full results of the survey are available online

I think it is folly to dismiss people’s stated concerns about privacy and data collection as irrelevant because their current behaviors somehow belie a more cavalier attitude. People don’t know yet what tracking's hazards and benefits really are, and they certainly have little clarity on what they can do about problems and how much they really want to tweak.

And here is the opportunity, where it always has been. Publishers and advertisers (purportedly professionals at communicating) can get closer to their own customers by addressing rather than running from user concerns about privacy and data. Marketers have the opportunity to do what they say they do best: come up with products, systems and communications that address a market need.

Giving people a sense of control is among the most powerful ways any marketer can become collaborators with customers. “Opt-out” is a sorry excuse for giving people control. Isn’t the privacy and data conversation an excellent way for publishers to find out what their users are most interested in, and from which advertisers they do want to hear?

It seems to me different, creative forms of opt-in represent the real opportunity here. Doesn’t anyone recall just a decade or two ago how all b2b trade pubs came with exhaustive lead-gen mailers that let readers declare their interest and ask for advertisers to send them more info? Isn’t digital media just begging for even more creative versions of such fully transparent tools, where you can identify people who really want you to share their information with others?

The Web was built on so much passive data collection everyone is afraid to have exposed that we may forget how effective explicit, creatively handled opt-in can be.  

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1 comment about "Americans 'Deeply Concerned' About Online Privacy...Kinda, Sorta".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 1, 2014 at 5:47 p.m.
    Ask people. Most attitudes are I have nothing to hide. They don't care what someone will find out about what art they like. It's not about that is finding out what flavor of ice cream you bought; it's about what is done with all of that information that is collected. (Will save the details for another conversation.) There is a disconnect and again it is not just about selling toothpaste.