What People Really Think About Online Privacy

Grandstanding politicians are always ready to pillory Facebook and other online services as destroyers of privacy. Silicon Valley tries to avoid thinking about igt. But how do ordinary folks really feel about the issue?

It’s hard to generalize based on a sample of four not randomly selected individuals. But based on what I heard from a panel of consumers at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference in Seattle May 14, these folks, at least, have a nuanced and generally accurate view of the state of online privacy.

Ralph Munro

One interesting conclusion from the panel, moderated by my friend and CBS Radio technology analyst and ConnectSafely.org co-director Larry Magid, is that privacy concerns are focused much more on the use of information by friends, enemies, potential employers, and other individuals than the on the possible sale of data by corporations. “My generation is pretty aware of the implications of putting information out,” said Landon Bennett, a University of Washington-bound Seattle high school senior. “It’s at the back of my mind at all times.” He admits that the world is becoming “more fishbowl like.”

Ralph Munro, born in 1943, brought the perspective of another generation. The former Washington secretary of state noted that the loss of privacy is nothing new. “I was raised in a house with no phone,” he said. “Our first phone was a party line and there was no privacy.” (For those of you too young to remember, a party line was a phone line shared by two or more families–a sort of primitive voice Twitter. To make a call, you had to listen to see if anyone else was using the line, and once there, you could eavesdrop to your heart’s content.)

Munro noted that people are perfectly willing to surrender privacy for small rewards. “People worry about privacy, but everybody signs up for a Safeway card. People are giving up their own privacy.” And when Munro suffered a serious illness a few years ago, his family sacrificed privacy to put out daily reports on CaringBridge. “I got messages from all over the world. I can’t tell you what that meant to me.” But, he admits, “Most people my age have no idea of the lack of privacy on the internet.”

Diana Henneuse, the mother of an eight-year-old daughter, shared the typical concerns of parents: “I’m concerned because of all the temptations out there. I worry about bullying and stalking. I want to be with her when she is on the computer.” And she worries that both children and adults spend their lives distracted by technology.

Imei Hsu is a psychotherapist and belly dancer and has the possibly unique problem of managing those two very different identities online. As a psychotherapist, a major preoccupation is protecting patient privacy and complying with the laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “The laws need to catch up,” she said.”HIPAA and the like can interfere with the practice of medicine” by preventing practitioners from taking full advantage of communications technology.

When you listen to politicians such as, say Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), you get the impression that Americans are cowering at the assault on their privacy by Facebook and Google.  “The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy,” Franken told the American Bar Assn. “When companies become so dominant that they can violate their users’ privacy without worrying about market pressure, all that’s left is the incentive to get more and more information about you.”

But based on what I heard from an admittedly limited sample in Seattle, that’s not where real peoples’ concerns lie. Their worries about online privacy are less corporate and much more personal and intimate. Privacy concerns are real, but the policy responses can seem like solutions in search of problems.



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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

9 thoughts on “What People Really Think About Online Privacy”

  1. I am way less concerned about marketers and companies that provide services accessing my “private” information (like anything on the Web is private), than having the government freely poking around in my online activities (see the CISPA bill now pending Senate approval). Smoke and mirrors… “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” while he rewrites warrantless search parameters in the name of cybersecurity. I’m betting most Americans would say warrantless spying is much nastier than advertisers’ use of web data to serve you an ad.

  2. What *Americans* really think about online privacy. People from other nations are often more concerned.

    Also, when you have a friend who got his bank account cleaned out, following a hack on an online retailer, you get more concerned about letting companies have your data. I guess this hasn’t yet happened to the people you talked to.

    1. This was a discussion privacy not data security, a very different issue. By the way, no one has their account cleaned out by an attack on an online retailer. Credit card liability in the U.S. is limited to $50 under all circumstances and zero if it is the result of a breach in the payment-processing system. You can be in much more serious danger if someone gets into your bank account, but htat is rare and in every case I know of, depositors have ben made whole. The biggest problem is the nuisance involved.

  3. But based on what I heard from an admittedly limited sample in Seattle, that’s not where real peoples’ concerns lie. Their worries about online privacy are less corporate and much more personal and intimate. Privacy concerns are real, but the policy responses can seem like solutions in search of problems.”

    To some the responses can seem like solutions in search of problems thats true, or to others with an ear to the ground the same seeming search of a oroblem can be the acute perception of hoof beats just beyond the visual horizon.

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