BEHAVIOR
February 11, 2015

Online Privacy Traps

Those privacy policies you click on to order apps or purchase goods? They don't protect your information.

Do you know where your personal information is? Protecting your privacy in today's information age is a challenge. Are we up to it? Probably not. The playing field is far too uneven, researchers say.

People need help and possibly even regulations to help safeguard their personal information. Right now, corporations and governments have the upper hand.

Most of us rarely know what personal information others have about us and how that information is used. Yet some are relatively unconcerned, while others may be unsure if it's worth worrying about. But even those most concerned about safeguarding their privacy can be influenced to give it away.

It would take over 10 days if people read the online privacy policies of every site they visited each year.

Researchers found, for example, that people were more likely to reveal personal and even incriminating information on a website with an unprofessional and casual design (an image of a horned demon with a caption reading "How BAD are U???") than on a site with a more professional look, even though these very same people judged the professional-looking site to be much safer.

Just as people offline are most likely to disclose intimate details in warm, comfortable rooms with soft lighting, it seems that people online are more likely to disclose personal information to websites they perceive to be warm and fuzzy.

And though online visitors may not be aware of the factors that encourage them to divulge their private information, the many organizations that want this information know these hidden persuaders and are perfectly willing to use them.

Then there's the matter of privacy policies. In one study, 62% of the people surveyed thought that the existence of a privacy policy implied that a site could not share their personal information without permission, a notion that is completely untrue.

This belief probably came about because the vast majority of internet users do not read privacy policies. And apparently, few would benefit much from doing so — another study found that about half of the online privacy policies it reviewed were written in language beyond the grasp of most Internet users, similar to the situation a few years back with patients' bills of rights.

What good is knowing a company or website's privacy policy if you can't understand it?

Yet another study found that if people in the United States took the time to read the online privacy policies of every site they visited each year, it would take them over 10 days to do so. Completing one's federal income tax return takes only 26 hours on average.

The authors say that giving people more information on privacy risks or allowing them some control over how their information is used, such as the ability to alter website default settings or to opt out of agreements that allow their personal information to be shared, are inadequate solutions. What's really needed is protection from the people and organizations that are out to capture our personal information.

The study is part of an issue of Science devoted to privacy.

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