How Do People Feel About Online Privacy? [Infographic]

As Congress and the online and advertising industries tussle over just how much access to your private information should be allowed online, new research is shedding new light on how you, the consumer, feel about the issue of “online privacy.” A new study shows the real issue over the tracking of online behavior for consumers may not exist with privacy at all, but in the more grey, and complex, realm of security.

A new study from Ball State University’s Center for Media Design found that the notion of privacy for consumers is “situational,” and depends on the context of the consumer, the nature of their information being tracked, and the organizations doing the tracking.

The findings of the report, titled “Notions of Privacy: Ignorance, Illusion or Miscommunication,” were gathered through a series of “ideation sessions” held with college students to, according to the researchers, “explore their attitudes and behaviors related to privacy and some solutions they’d like to see as the privacy debate evolves.”

The study’s findings can be seen in this interactive graphic created by the university’s researchers to show how consumer perceptions of personal data change with each situation. The graphic follows the green, yellow and red colors of a traffic light to show the degree to which consumers feel comfortable having their personal information made public.

“Often when debating privacy we make the mistake of assuming that personal information consists only of that information which we keep private. What this shows is, first, that our participants vastly extend the boundaries on the definition of personal information, and secondly, that they care about the use, distribution and security of that personal information – even that which they place in the public domain,” the report states.

In other words, consumers see the issue of having their personal information tracked online as more of an issue of security and control than privacy, and it is who or what is doing the tracking that matters.

In one example, online retailer Amazon.com was rated highly as an acceptable recipient of private data, even though it deals with personal data like purchasing history, because it was also seen as personally beneficial to the students.

On the other hand, respondents rated the release of their “browsing history” as something they are either “cautious” or “unwilling” to share because of high-perceived risks associated with releasing that information.

In another example, participants’ willingness to share grades depends on, in large part, with whom they are asked to share (e.g. friends, parents, potential schools or employers).

Consumers’ concern about having their personal information tracked online is “not about privatizing their information, it’s about keeping it secure,” Jen Milks, former project manager for insight and research at Ball State University, told MediaPost News.

The real issue, she added, is the overall “lack of transparency” consumers feel about having their personal information tracked.

The study comes as the issue of online privacy and behavioral advertising tracking moves forward as a hot-button issue in Congress. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) recently introduced the “Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011,” the first bill of this Congress that would give consumers the ability to prevent the collection and use of data on their online activities.

Meanwhile, the advertising industry has also taken a pro-active measure, attempting to circumvent any efforts by Congress by providing its own self-regulation measures such as the ‘opt-out’ advertising icon.

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