Online Privacy – Consumer Education is Missing

During 2007-2008 I wrote a lot about online privacy on this blog. Most of the online privacy discussion at that time revolved around online targeting based on tracking users online behaviors also knows as behavioral targeting.

It amazes my how many privacy advocates and senators are concerned about anonymous online tracking and behaviorally targeted ads based on peoples click behavior when the consumers are voluntarily giving all the private information on social media sites.

Last week Google Analytics announced a plug-in that will let users opt-out of Google Analytics. Really…is web analytics tracking detrimental to visitors’ privacy? Google Analytics collects click stream data anonymously. It does not know who you are, it identifies you via a cookie and tracks what pages were viewed by that cookie, what buttons were clicked by cookie etc. This data is then used by individual sites using the tool (Google Analytics) to understand the behavior of their visitors and optimize the experience both for the user and their business. Where is the privacy threat in all this?

Proliferation of the services like Facebook, Twitter and location based services like Gowalla and Foursquare have enabled people to share their personal information with their “friends”. Users of these services are willingly giving a lot of personal information. Information, that can be used by others (“friends”), in so many harmful ways. But is general consumer aware of such harms? Why isn’t that the most important issue?

The real threat to privacy is the lack of education about the online information sharing. We are the ones who are voluntarily revealing a ton of information, which is far more harmful than anonymous click stream behavior. Using Facebook, twitter and Foursquare you can pretty much know what a person likes, dislikes, who the family members are, what time they leave the house, what time they arrive at work, where do they spend their day, afternoon, evening, what they wear, etc. That to me should be more concerning than anonymous web analytics tracking and the ads that are targeted based on a users click behavior.

Most of the consumers don’t even know how all the little personal information they are leaving on social media sites could harm them. I have not seen any public service ads warning me about the downside of using such services. Shouldn’t there be those ads warning people, both offline and online?

In my opinion governmental agencies, privacy advocates and marketers should focus their attention on consumer education. Educate them about various tracking methods, implications of information sharing on social media sites etc. No matter how strict the online tracking & targeting rules are you won’t be able to avoid privacy leaks unless the end consumer is educated about the implications.

What do you think?

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4 Replies to “Online Privacy – Consumer Education is Missing”

  1. I think the thing you are missing is that the information a person gives via their cookied activity is valuable. It is obvious, and yet easily forgotten.

    It is easy to sell a cookie as a value to a consumer. But what if the economy switches much like it did for radio stations. Will the day come when I am paid for keeping a cookie on my machine?

  2. Great post — education about the benefits and drawbacks of targeted marketing is going to be critical for the industry (and consumers) to tap into its value.

    To get started, my take is that consumer education is secondary to the education of websites, who really make the decisions about what third-parties have access to user data. At PrivacyChoice we provide websites with visibility on who's tracking on their sites, so they can make better decisions and provide better disclosure. We also provide a comprehensive database of tracking companies so websites can understand certification, opt-out availability and key policies for each network they may want to enable.

    Please check it out and have your own site scanned. Tell us what you think!

  3. I am sure that part of it is education and that people don't have an idea how valuable the information that they leave around is and how it can be used.

    But I think that another large part is the emotional state that you are in when you are leaving information behind. On some level everybody knows that leaving a picture where you are completely wasted or where you insult your boss is not good for you overall reputation, but at the moment of posting you are either angry of happy about the great party and you want to share that with everyone. Once you have posted it, you can't go back or simply forget about it.

    I think we as analysts / computer science people have the tendency to think that every decision is based on rational thoughts (it's our job so no wonder!). Besides that, we try to do it with every of our decisions, right? But we should talk to people who make decisions based on feelings such as artists. I think we can learn a lot from them even ways to make more robust decisions.


  4. Interesting post Anil. I agree that the value of new Google analytics plug-in seems questionable and that public education on the real privacy threats is needed. I suscept one reason Google has done this and is able to do this is that there really isn't any privacy infringement involved with the information they collect through Google Analytics as you suggest. So why do it. The upside for them is they appear to be sacrificing something (data on users who use the plug-in) for the benefit (more privacy) of the everday internet user and with little or no gain for themselves or their customers who use Google analytics.

    But what are they really giving up? My guess is that because of the lack of education that you point out, few people will be bothered to install the plug-in. So data loss will be neglibile. Which means they give up virtually nothing for the benefit of appearing to be benevolent. Could be a nice little deposit in the brand repution bank account they they will need to draw on in the future.

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