Consumers: Giving Up Web Privacy Is Costly

The only thing scarier than the rampant dissemination of personal information on the Internet is the apparent willingness of consumers to exchange privacy for interactive convenience. That is the stunning, albeit long-suspected, snapshot rendered by a Pew Internet & American Life Project report on the management of "Digital Footprints" and personal information online.

That may be good news for advertisers and marketers that want to maximize transactions. It's great for financial services, since business is less costly online. It's a boon to the Internet's social networks and search engines, whose fortunes are tied to bartering such data. But it is really bad news for consumers, whose privacy and personal information security are already seriously compromised.

The phenomenon of leaving behind unguarded traces of oneself is the equivalent of intellectual property piracy to the nth degree. The notable difference is that there is virtually no consumer outcry or crusade for justice. Consumer acceptance is so casual; nearly half of all Internet users have searched for information about themselves online, which is more than double the 22% Pew reported in 2002. In other words, consumers enjoy Googling themselves to see what the Web knows about them!



Even more peculiar is that better than 60% of the Internet users surveyed are not concerned about the amount of online information about them. They do not take steps to limit that information. Few monitor their online presence with any regularity.

The inescapable truth is that "the more content we contribute voluntarily to the public or semi-public corners of the Web, the more we are not only findable, but also knowable," the report notes. With every click, users build a case against their own privacy. The report is based on the findings of a daily tracking survey on Americans' use of the Internet, based on data from 2,373 adults randomly called last year. It is largely inconclusive except to state that "changes in the way we search and how we exert control over our personal data will continue to shape the way we understand identity and presence online. The report itself offers no sense of alarm about the dramatic increase in location-based information, which will be fueled by the proliferation of mobile devices.

Add that to the recognition by users about the difficulty of removing or controlling bad information--what you have is a disaster waiting to happen.

The Pew report is laced with a false expectation that some viral crusader will save the day, even though the Pandora's Box of online data can never be closed. While Americans have "softened" their views about being monitored at work or being asked highly personal questions online, they generally agree it is important to control access to their personal information. The means for accomplishing this is become scarcer, as access to data becomes more unwieldy. Most troubling about the report is its lack of attention to the damaging potential of a personal data-rich "clickstream exhaust," or what author John Battelle originally coined as "digital footprints." Such sensitive information--if misused or abused--can sabotage jobs, marriages, credit standings and professional reputations.

It is a danger that threatens geeks and casual Web surfers alike. Although Pew contends most Internet users are not social networkers or bloggers, 91% of online adults use search engines primarily to find information. More than ever, consumers are doing their holiday shopping online. The soon-to-be universal search and sale activities online will eventually yield their fair share of bad results, according to the law of averages. For now, that doesn't appear to be much of an issue. Only 6% of the adults surveyed by Pew say they have asked someone to remove online information about them, such as photos or videos, and only 4% say they have had bad experiences because of embarrassing or inaccurate information posted about them online.

In truth, the Pew report is testament to one certainty: Consumers generally do not know much--if anything--about their digital footprints, or the trail of personal information they leave online-from email and home addresses, employers, political-party affiliations, videos, organizations we belong to and things we have written. That peculiar sense of indifference about personal transparency can be partly attributed to the routine nature of online sharing and tracking. About one-third of those surveyed have sought someone else's professional accomplishments, interests, profiles, contact information, public records and personal background. Indeed, even seemingly harmless activities, such as downloading music and video, trading emails or ordering merchandise, leave electronic identity traces.

Another reason for consumers' casual approach to personal data online could be the increasing number who do their work on the Web and are comfortable with virtual information. Employees required to market themselves online are more likely to monitor their presence with a search engine. Nearly 70% of these public personae use a search engine to look up their own name, compared to just 48% of employed Internet users who are not required to market themselves online as part of their jobs, the Pew report states.

What it all comes down to is this: We are not even a decade into using the Internet as the glue that binds our daily lives, and we are irretrievably caught up in an information and data vortex. The companies, institutions and individuals making their fortune from mining that data just couldn't be happier.

Next story loading loading..