Research Reveals Online Privacy Is Situational: Consumers Concerned With Transparency, Control

The debate surrounding privacy is shaping policies and, potentially even laws, that will determine how marketers and publishers track and target consumers online, but some new research suggests that consumers don't actually see it as a black or white situation, and that the real issue may not be privacy at all, but a potentially even more complex and emotional subject: security. The research, which was conducted by Ball State University's Center for Media Design, finds that the notion of privacy is actually "situational," and depends on the context of the consumer, the nature of their information being tracked, and the organizations that are tracking it.

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, 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

"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.

7 comments about "Research Reveals Online Privacy Is Situational: Consumers Concerned With Transparency, Control".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, February 22, 2011 at 8:49 a.m.

    Ball State is a industry funded organization, whose research is oriented to help the digital media business better target consumers. Given this bias--and their inability to truly understand the role of online advertising in the data collection process and its relationship to privacy--its research is likely to be seen as both conflicted and off-base.

  2. Michael Holmes from University of Cincinnati, February 22, 2011 at 10:58 a.m.

    Yes, Ball State University's Center for Media Design does funded research for media industry clients. But we also pursue self-funded projects, such as this one, in support of the university's mission to contribute to public knowledge. In both contexts we execute the research with rigor and impartiality -- it's the absolute standard for professional conduct within a university community. Unlike Jeff Chester, we have no agenda in the privacy debates. We're simply exploring how this group of consumers perceives privacy and security issues. That the results should suggest something more nuanced than "privacy good, personal data collection bad" should surprise and anger no one. Polarized debate can overlook the fact that consumer perceptions and attitudes are complex, rich and varied. Studies such as this one can remind us of the territory between the poles. -Michael Holmes, Director, CMD Insight & Research

  3. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., February 22, 2011 at 10:59 a.m.

    I agree with Jeffrey -- these guys are taking the tobacco money. But I'm not sure they're far off-base with these assertions, at least so far. People are correct in perceiving ubiquitous tracking as a security issue. What's creepy is the unstated but implied intention of eventually moving the dialogue around to where we're all talking about "emotional security" instead of "data security." One would think that youth coming of age deep into the Epoch of AIDS would have a better feel for the difference between "only hooking up with nice, well-spoken people" (emotional security) as opposed to "employing safe-sex techniques 100% of the time" (data security), but perhaps not.

    Meanwhile, that infographic is worth a long, careful look -- particularly at the green outer ring: the region supposedly marking information that some respondents apparently consider part of the public record anyway, so okay to share. Most of what you'd need to steal identity, perpetrate serious fraud, or indeed, derive almost any datapoint in the more-critical yellow or red rings is hanging out there, at least for a healthy chunk of the college population. Trivial example: everybody, apparently, thinks it's fine to share their pet's name. But the last time any online service inquired about my pet's name was in a password-recovery security-question option.

  4. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, February 22, 2011 at 1:33 p.m.

    First, Mr. Holmes doesn't answer the basic question--did his study include a serious analysis of the online data collection process and its implications for privacy. A review shows it did not--a scholarly omission that illustrates the Center is narrow-focused when it comes to understanding the real dimensions of this critical issue. Given the Center's extensive commercial relationships--including with Nielsen and Sequent Partners--there is a serious conflict of interest when it engages in media research. We hope the Administration of Ball State will conduct a review of the Center's research, including bringing in objective outside scholars with real expertise on these issues.

  5. Michael Holmes from University of Cincinnati, February 22, 2011 at 4:42 p.m.

    The policy review study Mr. Chester encourages (and wishes we had done) is a worthy task - it happens not to be the one at hand in this study. Our goal was to explore consumer attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and emotions around privacy. We make no value judgment if those are the attitudes and beliefs consumers SHOULD have. Indeed, a careful reading of the posted materials may reveal much that would be useful for building arguments in support of Mr. Chester's policy agenda. We, however, have no agenda other than discovering and revealing those attitudes. We leave it to policy analysts such as Mr. Chester to consider the policy implications of the current state of consumer awareness and attitudes about privacy. I believe it is appropriate at this point for us to move this particular discussion offline and encourage Mr. Chester to contact me directly if he wishes to discuss policy implications of this descriptive research about consumer attitudes. My contact information can be found on the BSU web directory,

    -Michael Holmes, Director, BSU CMD Insight & Research

  6. Anthony Miyazaki from Florida International University, February 22, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.

    A few observations as an academic researcher who is quite active in examining online privacy:

    1. There seems to be an unclear delineation being made here with respect to "context" versus "type of data." To really understand the privacy issue, researchers (whether from academia, government, or industry) must understand (a) what information people want to share (b) with whom and (c) in what particular situations. For example, while people normally might not share their credit card information with the world (colored red in the graphic linked in the article), they clearly do so on a regular basis with "trusted" companies. (Indeed, much of what appears in the graphic would be context-specific.)

    2. As for the accusations of bias and agenda in research being thrown back and forth in the comments, it's extremely difficult to find researchers who themselves do not have an opinion on the research that they conduct (myself included). Thus, transparency in process, procedure, and feedback mechanisms is paramount. (And even that isn't enough to put away concerns about biases at times.) The key to understanding research findings is *not* to assume a particular bias, but to (a) examine the methodologies underlying the research, (b) form alternate explanations for the findings, and (c) test these alternate explanations using the same or new data. Just as many public institutes freely provide their data sets to the public (and to other researchers), let's hope that Ball State's Center for Media Design will do the same. Again, don't freely accuse of bias! Test for sound methods instead!

    3. Finally, let's take this study with the grain of salt it requires. College students are not a representative sample. We know that. The Ball State researchers know that. They're convenient subjects (I've used them many times myself), but in the long run are only a starting point in finding truth. I'm surprised, though, that they were used here to make statements about the marketplace rather than used for theory-testing which would seem more appropriate. My guess (hope?) is that more representative studies from the center are in the works.

    Overall, the study is a welcome addition to both the seriously contested and much misunderstood privacy debate, as well as some additional insight into what goes on in consumers' minds with respect to privacy. As with ANY welcome addition to knowledge growth (all of my research included), let's greet it with both the open arms of excitement and the furrowed brow of skepticism that ALL research findings deserve. Yes, mine included.


    Anthony Miyazaki, Ph.D.
    Knight Ridder Research Professor
    & Associate Professor of Marketing
    Florida International University
    <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>

  7. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, February 23, 2011 at 10:20 a.m.

    Ball State's Center should also disclose its potential conflicts of interest on such studies. For example, Sequent Partners, which works on online marketing and other related issues, is a partner of Ball State. Sequent explains that: "Sequent Partners is the majority shareholder in Media Behavior Institute, a consumer-centric and media-neutral multimedia research company formed in 2008 and which enjoys a uniquely close relationship with Ball State University. Media Behavior Institute applied the University’s observational research and conducted the Nielsen Council for Research Excellence Video Consumer Mapping study, the most ambitious multi-media measurement ever conducted. Sequent Partners is also a shareholder and active member of the Media Trust LLC. This team was formed specifically to analyze in-market advertising and media response, and best-of-class sources of single-source data. Media Trust offers the most insightful set of evaluation tools for media and advertising. Sequent Partners also has a long-term development and product management relationship with OTX Research (Ipsos ASI) in the area of multimedia advertising research."

    Working at the Media Behavior Institute is Mike Bloxham, the long-time research director for the Center for Media Design, who just left the university to also work at a digital media start-up. Conflicts related to funding aside, scholars engaged in privacy research need to better understand how the digital marketing system actually works--instead of pontificating on imagined issues. Best the Center and its students see, as we suggested, our as a "Privacy 101" course!

Next story loading loading..