Internet Privacy a Complex Issue

A variety of approaches may be needed to make Internet users feel secure about the privacy of their personal information on the Net.

Research led by AT&T Labs found that Internet users were almost as willing to provide a Web site with their email address as they were to name their favorite snack food or television program. Credit card, social security, and phone numbers were considered more private than other personal information, the study found. Internet users were also less likely to provide information about themselves that could be shared for marketing purposes, and the vast majority were unwilling to share any information that would identify their children by name, age, or address.

The study, “Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users’ Attitudes About Online Privacy,” has been submitted to the upcoming Federal Trade Commission workshop on Consumer Protection in the Electronic Marketplace. It evaluated users’ reactions to different methods of protecting the privacy of their information online, and to different methods of Web sites requesting information from them. The survey is based on a survey of FamilyPC magazine families taken last November. Researchers at AT&T Labs, Harvard, MIT, and the University of California-Irvine administered the survey.

“Our results suggest that very simple interfaces may be suitable for users who have either strong feelings or are only marginally concerned about online privacy,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, a Secure Systems researcher at AT&T Labs. “However, for the majority of users, a variety of mechanisms may be needed. It seems unlikely that a one-size-fits-all approach to online privacy will succeed.”

A joint program of privacy policies and privacy “seals of approval” seems to provide a level of user confidence comparable to legislation, the survey found. But people are also confused about privacy seals. The survey found respondents were more willing to submit their name and address to a site that offered them pamphlets and coupons related to a hobby if the site had a seal of approval from an organization such as the Better Business Bureau.

Internet users in the survey dislike automatic data transfer and unsolicited communications. When asked about possible browser features that would make it easier to provide information to a Web site, 86 percent reported no interest in doing so without their taking some action.

More than 60 percent of those who said they would be willing to provide their name and address to a Web site to receive information by mail were less likely to do so if the information was shared with other companies for marketing purposes.

The use of cookies drew a range of responses in the survey, depending on how they would be used. More than half (52 percent) of the respondents said they were concerned with cookies, while 12 percent had no idea what cookies were. Most people said they changed their browser settings to something other than accepting all cookies without warning, but would agree to Web sites using such persistent identifiers to provide a customized service or advertisement.

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