Other privacy concerns overshadow worries about media choices

A new Pew Research Center survey on Internet privacy concerns, released today, has a nugget of good news for organizations producing targeted website content and advertising.

It would overstate the finding to say Americans don't care whether information is collected about the media they like and their purchasing habits. About a third of those surveyed do. But those two were literally last on a list of 16 concerns Pew sampled.

My take is that the flurry of concern about blocking cookies, seemingly on the rise a couple of years ago, has been overtaken by more recent bigger-deal security breaches -- specifically identity theft and government monitoring.

Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew's Internet Project, said in a phone interview that interpretation is roughly right. "We didn't ask people directly to compare one concern to another.  But it's fair to say that over the last 18 months a host of things have come to the top of people's agenda.  There is also a general sense that they are losing control (of their personal information)."

Digging a little more deeply in the Pew survey, there are suggestions that certain new media offerings might yet prove problematic.  For instance, a very clear majority, more than 80 percent, said that they were very sensitive or somewhat sensitive about providing access to "details of your physical location over a period of time."

Any number of nascent news sites and advertising shopping apps aim to be more personalized by pinpointing where you are.  But in my experience the prevailing practice seems to be to ask permission to serve a location-appropriate ad.

A separate question asked whether users appreciated the "efficiency" of being served personalized content and advertising based on harvesting of data about their habit and preferences.  Only 36 percent said yes.  Rainie noted, however, that "people do like free, and a substantial number will volunteer to share information about themselves with a company if they get something free in return."

I also asked Rainie whether people might be more upset if they realized how much data is being collected by dozens of third parties from news organizations sites and aggregators like Yahoo.  "Yes, they would," he replied.  "It fits with the general sense of losing control.  They don't really know what bits of data are being gathered and particularly how that data is being combined."

Privacy policies (here's one from the Tampa Bay Times site) are typically buried in small print at the bottom of a directory and baffling to read.  So requests to opt out of such tracing are rare.

Another question in the survey found that 61 percent of respondents said "they would like to do more" to protect the privacy of information online -- though it is not clear what doing more would mean.

The survey did not explore in depth how people feel about social media giants like Facebook and Google compiling personal profiles of users. But Rainie said that the overall finding of newer, bigger privacy concerns applied.  Facebook's privacy policies are complex and revised frequently, and the company has occasionally stumbled, as in a 2012 test revealed this year of serving a positive news feed to some users for experimental purposes.

But Facebook users, Rainie said, have come to accept being served ads based on their activity.  "That's the deal," for a free service millions find valuable.

The survey, compiled from interviews of 607 adults in January 2014, is described as Pew's first attempt to study "privacy perceptions and behaviors."  The research center plans "to examine this topic in depth and over an extended period of time."


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