Tag Archives: Personally identifiable information

Pew, Privacy, and You

I think we all know that Big Brother is watching.  Putting aside what the government may or may not be doing (no politics here!), most people are aware that every move of their digital lives is cataloged, analyzed, and might be sold to someone.  The Pew folks released a study about how we (Americans) feel about that.  In Pew’s words: 

While many Americans are willing to share personal information in exchange for tangible benefits, they are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that information once companies have collected it… Many people expressed concerns about the safety and security of their personal data in light of numerous high-profile data breaches. They also regularly expressed anger about the barrage of unsolicited emails, phone calls, customized ads or other contacts that inevitably arises when they elect to share some information about themselves.

Let’s drill down a bit.  The phrase “context-specific and contingent” is a good one to guide us as we think about how to set up a mutually beneficial relationship with the consumer.  First, what benefit is the visitor deriving from giving me their information?  Is it content?  If so, is that content so unique and of such high-quality that they feel it’s an equal exchange or is it just commodity content, something reprinted from some other source?  That contextual decision isn’t yours, by the way: it’s the consumer’s.

Second, what happens to that data after the consumer surrenders it?  Do consumers feel you are a trustworthy repository for their information or are you selling it to anyone regardless of what that third party’s intentions are? The consumer’s initial value exchange with you might be fine, but the subsequent actions by someone else may render that satisfaction null and void. Even if you’re retaining the data, are you doing “creepy” things with it such as constantly remarketing to the consumer so they feel as if they have a stalker in their lives?

While people are used to the notion that privacy is a disappearing concept (for better or for worse), that fact doesn’t mean that they don’t care.  As Pew found, they do care.  I think there is always room for a company to gain an advantage by being transparent and respectful about how they are using the data consumers share with them.  You?

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AV Gee Whiz…

If you own a Windows computer, chances are you’ve installed some sort of anti-virus program.  At least I hope you have.  One of the more popular programs of this sort is AVG Anti-virus.  I have it on my old Windows machine and I’ve installed it on my parents’ laptop.  AVG recently updated their privacy policy and it’s caused a bit of a fracas.  It also raises some important issues for the rest of us. 

Let me say at the outset that the manner in which AVG presents their new policy should be a model for the rest of us.  You can (and should) read it here.  It is clear, written in plain language that doesn’t require the reader to be either a lawyer or a technical person. Not only do they explain what data they are collecting but also why they are collecting it.  I bet you can’t find another privacy policy that does so as well as this one does.

So what has happened as a result of AVG trying to be good corporate citizens?  They are getting reamed.  There have been many negative articles and thousands of negative posts written (this thread on reddit is particularly nasty).  You see, AVG made one large change in the policy, which is that it now involves keeping the browsing history of its users and selling the data to third parties.  They actually were collecting most of this data before except there was no mention of selling it to anyone for commercial purposes.

The PC World piece on the controversy summed it up nicely:

AVG’s new policy illustrates exactly why companies tend to drown their data collection practices in legalese. There’s no penalty for doing so, and being transparent only invites more outrage. In that sense, AVG at least deserves credit for helping users make informed decisions. Still, the idea of an anti-virus program tracking and monetizing your browsing history is unnerving, and if anything AVG ought to clarify that point further as it finalizes its new privacy policy.

So I’m at a loss here.  Is it a better idea to confuse your customers?  Is it good practice to be a little less transparent?  I don’t think either of those are true.  Are we all still so naive that we believe all the tracking information companies gather about our every move (and this is true about your mobile device usage too!) is just for their own information so that they can make our user experiences better?  Sure, AVG makes it possible to opt out of some of this, but do we really think most people will read the new policy and do so?

I guess the real question becomes is honesty still the best policy?  What’s your take?

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Locking Your Door

There are many homes in the town where I live that aren’t locked up when nobody is home.

English: A candidate icon for Portal:Computer ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While in some ways it’s a nice relic of a time and society long gone, I’ve always wondered how people were able to file insurance claims or police reports if they got robbed. After all, they did nothing to protect their privacy other than trusting in the good will of the surrounding community.
Unfortunately, the world out there contains a fair number of evil-doers, and that includes the digital world of the web. Most of us know that, I’m afraid, but I’ve never really been sure how many of us take action to prevent those bad guys from entering our digital homes. Oh sure, maybe we use the pre-installed anti-virus stuff (hopefully with up to the minute virus definitions) but how many people are being proactive about keeping their data doors locked?
The folks from Microsoft released a study yesterday and the answer was surprising, at least to me. You can read the executive summary of and view a slide show about the findings here.  The big ones:

  • Forty-five percent said they feel they have little or no control over the personal information companies gather about them while they are browsing the Web or using online services, such as photo- sharing, travel or gaming.
  • Forty percent said they feel they ”mostly” or “totally understand” how to protect their online privacy.
  • An equal number of people (39 percent) said they are turning to friends and family, as well as privacy statements, as their top source for privacy information.
  • Almost a third of those surveyed (32 percent) said they always consider a company’s privacy reputation, track records, and policies when choosing which websites to visit or services to use.

OK, a lot of people get that they’re being tracked and not always for benign purposes, so surprisingly (to me, at lesast) they’re taking action. When asked what, if any, actions respondents had taken to protect the privacy of their online data, the vast majority (85%) report that they had actively taken steps. The most common action reported was the deletion of cookies that may be used to record and track online behavior.

I think this is good news –  locked doors keep the crime rate in our little digital town down.  Of course, it also means that any of us who want to be invited in to consumers’ cookie caches need to play nice.  That means have a clear privacy policy, explain how and if we’re using the data, and make sure that users read and understand what we’re doing.  Otherwise, we’ll have to break in to steal that information, and I think we all know where that can land us.  Regulatory bodies worldwide are already considering harsh and cumbersome rules and we know that they’ll probably get something wrong.  It’s on the industry to get ahead of this and to behave, encouraging people to take charge – lock their doors – and make it simple to do so.

Are you locking your data door?  Who are you letting in and why?

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Keeping It To Yourself

We have discussed privacy here on the screed several times. During many of those rants I talked about how companies need to think about their privacy policies (and being transparent about it is a great start) and how those policies will play with the folks whose data the companies are using. My theory is that young people have never really had any privacy (mostly due to hovering parents) and they’re less concerned about the issue than are people of my generation. However, there are netizens of every age who do care, and I suspect that as the “creepy” factor of ads following you around grows due to retargeting, etc., more people will begin to look into what data they’re sharing with the web overlords and how that data is used.

If you care or if you wonder if you should, the folks at Privacy Choice will be of interest to you.  Their research reveals that 20% of sites and apps reserve the right to share personal data freely for commercial purposes. Also, 60% of website privacy policies do not provide any written assurance that users can delete their personal data at the end of the relationship:

The most critical component of a privacy policy governs how a website or app handles personal data, which increasingly includes not only email addresses but also profile and other more intimate personal information gathered through social network integration…Nearly two-thirds of all policies examined (63%) provide assurance that personal data generally will not be shared with other companies, while another 10% promise not to share personal data for “marketing purposes.” However, one in five sites provide no assurance against sharing personal data with other companies.

If you are interested, I urge you to install their Privacyfix tool and the browser extension.  You can check a site’s tracking using this tool.  The results can be eye-opening.  It’s becoming obvious that companies are counting on us to take control if that’s what we want.  What do you think?

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