Privacy: In the tech world, it’s the little-big issue that could. You’ve heard all of the arguments before. With few paid subscription models, it’s difficult to monetize the internet without sacrificing some privacy to advertisers, and even those with paid models would scarcely pass up the chance to harvest and benefit from user data. And yet, how far is too far? What data is sacred, and what’s essential for keeping internet-based companies in business?
Not only is the issue of online privacy difficult to define in itself, but it’s also just as difficult to determine how much users even care. Take one look at social media oversharing, and it would be easy to get the impression that young people are one step away from plugging their Twitter feeds directly into their brains, while older people (supposedly) exhibit more reserve. And yet, surveys show show that young people do care about privacy, they just have a weak grasp of how poorly many companies safeguard their data.
So just when do people care about privacy, and how does this vary across devices? Let’s take a look at a few informative surveys.
Browsing the Internet
While there are inevitably widespread outcries every time major companies redo their privacy agreements, by and large, most privacy experts concur that users become consistently habituated to the concept of giving away their data to companies, which leads to passivity. By and large, consumers often click through privacy and data use agreements without a glance, thanks in dual part to dense, nearly impossible to decipher language and a desire to just hurry up and install the app they desire. However, that’s not to say users don’t care at all. In a 2012 TRUSTe survey, 90 percent of respondent indicated they were worried about online privacy, and a further 41 percent said they don’t trust businesses to safeguard their personal information online (though the flip side is that 59 percent do).
A Forrester poll also showed that users were highly concerned about sharing their social security numbers, internet browsing history, credit card numbers and driver’s license numbers.
That said, as we can see in the cases of Google and Facebook, once a brand is established, most avid users will remain loyal despite reservations about privacy. There was much grumbling from users, for example, when Google announced it would use aggregated personal data to create more personalized advertisement. But of the 60 percent of users who expressed concern in a Digital World Research survey, 69 percent of respondents said they were not at all likely to stop using Google products. While companies do have to proceed with caution and must always make the user feel listened to, those with a real niche or market dominance will always be able to test the boundaries.
In fact, as an extensive Pew Internet social media survey showed, the majority of users’ concerns center around their own posts and that of their friends, with women and young users far more likely to unfriend and delete comments, tags and posts, as well as to have private profiles. Though the two are not mutually exclusive, this speaks to larger, more sociological concerns regarding public perception than concerns with use of data by proprietary agents.
On Mobile Phones
While concerns about mobile phone data do differ from internet usage to account for differences in technology, they are in many ways quite similar. As this survey on mobile phone privacy shows, users tend to be most concerned about how the people in their lives invade their privacy, just like on social media. Thirty-eight percent of respondents reported having caught a spouse or significant other peeking at their phone, while 24 percent had caught a friend. Women were more often the guilty party than men, and users were concerned about the loss of privacy in regards to contacts, addresses, photos, videos, emails and text messages.
The notable exception to concerns over social privacy was that of banking information, over which a whopping 43 percent of respondents reported having privacy concerns, particularly in terms of phone theft. Tracking is another high area of concern, with 30 percent of respondents to another Pew Research poll indicating that they had removed an app once they learned how much information it collected about them, and 30 percent reporting that they had turned off their phone’s location tracking due to concerns over people or companies gaining too much access to their personal data. However, given the surging popularity and indespensibility of such apps, it’s likely that such concerns, just like those over social media data, won’t prevent usage from continuing to rise in the long term.
Looking to the Future
In the future, technology seems not merely poised to increasingly blur the borders between public and private as a consequence of its core features, but to find its very conception in these roots. Google Glass is a perfect example of ubiquitous computing, making the internet constantly available as users navigate everyday life. Users will have to set aside privacy concerns (especially in terms of location tracking) as wearable computers are mounted to their glasses in order to create an augmented reality. Once the domain of science fiction films, such a step now seems inevitable, which just goes to show how far we’ve come and where we’ll be willing to go, albeit with reservations.
Privacy is and will remain a sticky issue for most technology businesses — just as conflicted as it is for users themselves, who both demand a constant stream of innovation yet have clear individual limits to what they do and do not find acceptable. The savvy tech company will have to lead users forward while listening to their needs. In fact, the companies that will have the most success will go out of their way to explain their privacy policies, communicating with easy to digest and understand policies or perhaps even fun, explanatory videos — anything to get the message across to the user, and lead them forward.
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Rob Toledo is Outreach Coordinator at Distilled, aka marketing coordinator with experience heavily focused online. Technologically driven, with a love for SEO, outreach, link building, content creation, conversion rate optimization, advertising, copywriting, graphic design, SEO, SEM, CRO, Google Analytics, social media, creative content…you get the picture. He blogs at stenton toledo