Friday, November 2, 2007

Most consumers clueless about online tracking, behavior profiling

I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but a new poll released this week by the Samuelson Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that consumers are grossly unaware of just how much of their personal information is being shared and sold online.

The good news is a coalition of privacy advocacy groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission to consider creating a "Do Not Track" list...similar to the popular "Do Not Call" lists. The coalition includes the Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Action, the Consumer Federation of America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Activism, Public Information Research Inc., Privacy Journal, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the World Privacy Forum.

Jaikumar Vijayan of Computerworld writes about the new poll's findings:

One example of that disconnect is that more than half -- about 55% -- of those surveyed falsely assumed that a company's privacy polices prohibited it from sharing their addresses and purchases with affiliated companies. Similarly, nearly four out of 10 online shoppers falsely believed that a company's privacy policy prohibits it from using information to analyze an individuals' activities online; in fact, this is a common practice. A similar number also assumed that an online privacy policy meant that a company they're doing business with wouldn't collect data on their online activities and combine it with other information to create a behavioral profile.

Still, when survey respondents were offered a clear explanation of an online advertising model, about 85% rejected the idea that a site they value and trust should be allowed to serve up click stream advertisements based on data from their visits to various other sites.


Compounding user ignorance is the fact that many companies say they respect a user's choice not to be tracked, yet still find ways of circumventing that commitment, Hoofnagle said. For instance, some Web sites that promise not to allow third-party tracking cookies to be installed on a user's system do so anyway in a roundabout fashion via so-called first-party sub-domain cookies, he said. Similarly, some companies install flash cookies to uniquely track users across sites, he said.

Even companies that pledge not to share online consumer information with an outside party often store more data, and for longer periods of time, than most consumers realize, or would agree to if they knew, Hoofnagle said.

"From the consumer perspective, many, many thousands of companies track everything they do online and offline, maintain profiles of them and sell them to whoever will pay the most for it," said Steven Gal, CEO of ProQuo, a La Jolla, Calif.-based start-up that allows users to choose which paper junk mail to stop receiving from different sources. Such companies don't let consumers see their profiles, or interact with these profiles, resulting in a lot of junk mail and spam, he said.

Jaikimar Vijayan also writes on the upcoming FTC hearings regarding the creation of a Do Not Track list:

A group of nine privacy advocacy organizations today submitted a proposal to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to consider implementing a Do Not Track list to protect people from having their online activities unknowingly tracked and used by marketers. The group also wants the formal definition of the term "personally identifiable information" updated, and it said Internet advertisers should be forced to provide more robust disclosures on any behavioral tracking they are doing.


Basically, a Do Not Track list would require companies that undertake consumer behavioral tracking for advertising purposes to register their tracking servers with the FTC. Consumers could then download that information and use it to block servers on the FTC list from planting persistent tracking tools on their systems.


The proposed plan is designed to make it as easy for consumers to opt out of online tracking as it was for those on the Do Not Call list to opt out of unwanted telephone calls, Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, said at this morning's news conference.

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