Few Americans understand online privacy and tracking, report finds

Many people in the United States would like to control what information companies can get about them online. Yet when faced with a series of true or false questions about how digital devices and services track users, most Americans struggled to answer them, according to a report published Tuesday by the Annenberg. School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The report analyzed the results of a data privacy survey that included more than 2,000 adults in the United States. Very few respondents said they trust the way online services handle their personal data.

The survey also tested people’s knowledge of how apps, websites and digital devices can collect and disclose information about people’s health, TV viewing habits and video from doorbell cameras. . Although many understood how companies can track their emails and website visits, a majority seemed unaware that there are only limited federal protections for the types of personal data that online services can collect on consumers.

Seventy-seven percent of participants answered nine or fewer of the 17 true-or-false questions, which equates to an F grade, according to the report. Only one person received an A grade, for answering 16 of the questions correctly. No one answered all of them correctly.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication asked 2,014 people in the United States for a series of true-false statements. The correct answers are in bold.

The survey results reveal a deep lack of knowledge among Americans as the Federal Trade Commission moves to limit companies’ online consumer tracking — or, as regulators have called it, “surveillance.” commercial”. And the report could bolster the agenda for regulators as it highlights weaknesses in a framework that has served as the basis for online privacy regulation in the United States for decades.

This long-standing approach is known as “notice and consent”. It generally allows online services to freely collect, use, maintain, share and sell a wealth of details about individual consumers, as long as the companies first tell users about their data practices. and obtain their consent.

The report adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the notice and consent approach has become obsolete. Researchers and regulators say apps and sites often use lengthy and sometimes unintelligible privacy policies to trick people into agreeing to tracking practices they may not understand. These critics claim that “notice and consent” practices for online services can prevent informed consent.

True “consent requires people to have knowledge about data-mining business practices as well as a belief that they can do something about them,” the Annenberg school report says. “Americans have neither.”

Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents said they had “little control over what marketers” could learn about them online, while 73% said they didn’t. had no “time to track the means to control the information the companies” held about them.

“The big takeaway here is that consent is broken, totally broken,” Joseph Turow, a professor of media studies at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the report, said in an interview. “The general idea that consent, whether implied or explicit, is the solution to this sea of ​​data collection is totally wrong – and that is the gist of it.”

Some leading regulators agree.

“When faced with technologies that are increasingly critical to navigating modern life, users often lack a true set of alternatives and cannot reasonably give up using these tools,” said Lina M. Khan, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, in a speech last year. .

During the conference, Ms Khan proposed a “kind of new paradigm” that could place “substantial limits” on consumer tracking.

Leigh Freund, chief executive of the Network Advertising Initiative, a digital advertising industry group, said that while the “notice and consent” approach was “obsolete in its application in many respects”, it could still be a useful tool “in conjunction with reasonable limits on data collection and use, including with respect to sensitive data.

She added that her trade group supports a current effort in Congress to pass a comprehensive federal consumer privacy law that would place meaningful limits on data use “while protecting the benefits of data-based advertising.” data for consumers, small businesses and the economy”.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication surveyed 2,014 people in the United States about their feelings about control over their personal data and the privacy trade-offs consumers face in line.

The survey results challenge a data-services trade-off argument the tech industry has long used to justify consumer tracking and prevent government limits: consumers can freely use a host of convenient digital tools – as long as they agree to allow apps, sites, ad technologies, and marketing analytics companies to track their online activities and use their personal information.

But the new report suggests that many Americans don’t buy into the industry bargain.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they didn’t think it was fair for a store to be able to monitor its online activity if it connected to the retailer’s Wi-Fi. And 61% said they thought it was wrong for a store to use their personal information to improve the services they received from the store.

Only a small minority – 18% – said they didn’t care what companies learned about them online.


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