Poll Shows Consumers Misinformed about Data Collection Online

Despite harboring serious concerns over how their personal information is being collected and shared online, consumers are largely ignorant of the rules governing such practices, according to a new poll from the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The poll showed that 72 percent of consumers are concerned that their behavior on the Web is monitored and analyzed by marketers, while 53 percent are uncomfortable having the content of their e-mail messages or their browsing activities analyzed in order to generate relevant ads. Fifty-four percent are uncomfortable with third-party companies — meaning those they do not choose to transact with — collecting information about their Web activity.

Given that level of concern, it is perhaps surprising how many consumers seem to have little understanding of the rules regarding the collecting of their personal information. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they believed that companies were required by law to inform consumers that they intend to collect or share personal information; 49 percent believe personal consent is required before companies can use their personal information; and 43 percent believe a “court order” is required to monitor online activity. All three groups are wrong.

“Consumers definitely have misconceptions about how much information is available about them and exactly how much control they don’t have over it,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union. “The surprising part I think for us is that even though they have misconceptions about what’s being done, they’re still extremely concerned.”

Misinformed or not, consumers are taking steps to prevent marketers from collecting their personal information, according to the poll. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they use alternate e-mail address when asked to provide information, 26 percent have experimented with identity-masking software, and 25 percent have actually provided false information in order to access a Web site.

And nearly all respondents made it clear they think marketers should be more open about collecting their data. Ninety-three percent said they think Internet companies should always ask permission before using a consumer’s personal information, and 72 percent would like the opportunity to opt out of having their personal information collected in the first place.

Kelsey said the poll should serve as a wake-up call to consumers, marketers and legislators, all of whom may have to take steps to close the gap between the realities of data collection and the perception.

“Clearly there is a line in the sand that companies should not be crossing, after which they would violate consumer trust,” he said. “I think the onus for now is for the companies to be good actors and treat consumers fairly, and if not it might be time for the government to step in.”

The poll, which involved over 2,000 respondents, was conducted by telephone between July 24th and 27th of this year.

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