CookieLaw Blog February 12, 2013

Are We in a Privacy Arms Race?

I delivered a presentation entitled ‘Rising to the Privacy Challenge’ at the DMA UK Data Protection half-day conference last Friday (videos hopefully available soon). During my research, I uncovered a whole series of surveys clearly indicating that consumers are more concerned than ever about their online privacy.

These figures fly in the face of common mythologies that ‘privacy is dead’ and ‘no-one cares about privacy any more’.

The event was all about the proposed new EU Data Protection Regulation and its potential impact on UK marketing practices and business and included a keynote speech from Chris Graham, the Information Commissioner.

My piece was mostly focussed on what I thought would be the key technology challenges posed by stricter privacy legislation, and the kinds of changes in the digital experience that we could expect to see as a result.

Far from being relaxed about online privacy, consumer mistrust of businesses use of personal data online appears to be increasing.  These are just a few of the facts I included in my talk:

The 2013 Truste Privacy Index survey found that  a whopping 43% of internet users don’t trust businesses with their personal information, an increase of six percentage points compared to a year ago.

In the same survey, 91% of people said they avoid doing business with companies they don’t believe protect their online privacy.  And 79% of smartphone users say they avoid privacy intrusive apps.

Research by consultancy Ovum showed that only 14% of consumers believe that companies are being honest about how web tracking data is used.

This chimes well with a recent study by Microsoft, which found that only 22% of US consumers trust website privacy policies.

The Ovum study also revealed that nearly half of respondents believed that their personal data was being sold to advertisers for profit.

Plus, they found that 68% of internet users would choose anonymity through a Do Not Track feature for search engines, if it was easily available.

Interestingly, the UK figure was above the average at 71%, but the USA came out second top at 77% – so it seems US citizens are even more eager for greater online privacy than most Europeans (only French respondents where more privacy conscious, with 81% wanting search anonymity).

The Privacy Arms Race

Another way to judge users privacy concerns is to look at what they are doing to try to protect themselves.  A quick look at the Mozilla Add-On store will reveal that the most popular extension for the Firefox browser, is an Ad-blocking tool.  It has more than twice the number of users than the second place extension. 

There are also a further two extensions in the top 10 that are significantly geared towards online privacy.  More extensions are being released all the time that are designed to protect consumers from what many see as the invasive data gathering practices of big business.

We also know that use of Do Not Track settings in browsers is on the increase.  Although the official stats are a little old now, as of May 2012, 8.6% of Firefox desktop users were asking not to be tracked online – two percentage points, or a 35% increase, from just 6 months earlier.

Firefox mobile users are even more privacy conscious, with 19% choosing the Do Not Track option.

What all of this tells us is that consumer concerns about online privacy are not going away, on the contrary, greater numbers of people are taking actions to protect themselves online. 

Microsoft is one technology business already looking to make the most of people’s privacy concerns.  They launched Internet Explorer 10 last year with Do Not Track switched on by default – positioning it as the ‘privacy friendly’ browser.  They have also been running anti-Google campaigns, focussing amongst others on how Gmail content is used to provide tageted ads.  Just go to YouTube (no small irony) and search ‘Scroogled’.

Yet the last thing we really need is some kind of privacy arms race, a consumer vs. business battle.  That sort of thing just sucks up energy and resources that in reality everybody would prefer to put to better use.

We are at a crucial juncture with the proposals for new EU wide-wide privacy protections.   There are many things wrong with the draft Regulation, and it is important to iron those issues out over the next few months.  There is much that could be done to reduce bureaucracy and avoid a box ticking culture.

There have been lots of interest groups putting forward their positions and suggestions for changes.  This has included lobbying by US business interests that see threats in strong privacy protections in the EU.

There is still much more negotiation to come, however, in all the horse-trading it is important to ensure that the goal of increasing consumer privacy is achieved.  We need privacy rules that are simple to implement, enforce and understand.

Or else trust will continue to be eroded, and all the effort will be for nothing.  An all-out privacy war won’t do anyone any good.

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