The report, "Notions of Privacy: Ignorance, Illusion or Miscommunication," is based on consumer-centric research designed to understand how average people - not the industry wonks, advocacy groups, policy makers or regulators who seem to be framing the debate - feel about having their personal information tracked online. The research, which will be rolled out in stages this week beginning with the release of the top line finding that consumers see it as an issue of security and control, is part of an ongoing series of studies the university plans to conduct around the subject.
"We wanted to put a toe in the water to reframe the debate more around security and consent vs. the dichotomy of public and private information," explains Jen Milks, former project manager for insight and research at the university, who is joining a new, as-yet-undisclosed research venture with another former Ball State researcher, Mike Bloxham.
Milks says the university's research, the first wave of which was conducted among college students, a segment of the population that supposedly is less sensitive to online privacy issues than the general population, found that they are actually quite concerned about having their personal information tracked online, but that, "It's not about privatizing their information. It's about keeping it secure."
The real issue, she says, is the overall "lack of transparency" consumers feel about having their personal information tracked, and their anxiety about how it is being used and feeling that they don't have direct control over the process.
To illustrate the situational nature of consumer perceptions about disclosing their personal information online, the university's researchers created an interactive graphic delineating the "stop and go" nature of their personal data flow. The graphic utilizes the green, yellow and red color metaphors of a traffic light to show the degree with which consumers feel comfortable having their personal information made public. The graphic also drills into the context surrounding specific types of personal information, ranging from personal communication to finance to medical.
For example, looking at the discrete category of individuals' online media information, most respondents were comfortable sharing their Facebook profile information and photos publicly online, but deem their "browsing history" to be something they are either "cautious" or are "unwilling" to share because of high perceived risks associated with disclosing that information.
Similarly, there are considerable ranges with other personal information. Under the subject of "relationships," most users were comfortable sharing information about their marital status, or the names of their pets publicly, but when it comes to their "sexual experiences," or their mother's maiden name, consider that information verboten.
The issue is so contextual, that consumers feel differently about sharing the same personal information with different organizations, based on the perceived benefits and degree of security associated with how they might use the data. Online retailer Amazon.com, for example, got high marks from most of the college students studied by the university, even though the site deals with potentially personal behavior such as their purchasing history.
Former Ball State researcher Bloxham described Amazon as an "outlier" among the online organizations studied, and said it was more a function of the pattern of trust that Amazon has built up over time, and the fact that it has consistently delivered on its users expectations.
"The reason they cite Amazon positively is that they see the information that has been harvested from the site as benefitting them personally," Bloxham said, noting that Amazon generally utilizes a user's past purchase behavior to make recommendations that might fulfill a user's future expectations. Importantly, Bloxham said Amazon is not perceived as divulging that information to others, such as third-party advertisers who might target offers to people based on their purchase behavior on Amazon.com.
"Customer service from Amazon is perceived as being very good," Bloxham noted.
The university plans to continue tracking consumer perceptions about online privacy, security and control issues surrounding their personal data, but Michael Holmes, a professor and director of the Center for Media Design's insight and research, said the initial findings essentially uncover the fact that most consumers are simply anxious about the unknown, and want more transparency and better controls in dealing with how their information is trafficked online.