Online Privacy Takes a Back Seat to Convenience

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

A little while back, a report released by the Ponemon Institute revealed that data breaches in which consumer information was lost or stolen are much more prevalent than many people realize. In fact, within the last year, 43% of all businesses have had some sort of issue relating to data breaches, and many of them have been very high-profile companies like Home Depot and Target.
For these companies, the expense of dealing with the fallout from stolen data can add up fast. The Ponemon Institute’s calculations led to a cost of $201 for each lost or stolen individual record. Now, multiply that across several thousand potential stolen records, and suddenly these instances of stolen data are not merely a PR problem, but a financial one as well. Of course, as time goes on, many companies will be spending significant amounts of time, energy, and capital to find new and improved ways of protecting its systems. But it’s still a little unsettling, as it does effect consumer trust levels at least a bit.
For some companies, data is simply a commodity in which it does business with. Many businesses, like Google, Facebook, and others, profit off of the selling and trading of consumer data. The oft-unspoken agreement is that consumers trade information about themselves — whether it be demographic details, where they live, etc. — in exchange for use of free software, like Gmail or a Facebook page. This isn’t really something that is done in a clandestine manner. In fact, it’s fairly well-known. While at first, learning that your personal data is being shared like a currency across the Internet to bring in revenues can turn a lot of people off, but most of us go along with it anyway.
We’d simply rather do that than pay for these services. Just try and imagine the public outcry if Facebook decided to charge for pages, or if Twitter wanted you to fork over a monthly subscription fee for your account.

A simple explanation for why many people are willing to make this trade is that they simply don’t care. Really, is it that big of a deal if your image — which you likely uploaded to a social network without reading the terms and conditions — is used to advertise different products and services to your friends and family members? It turns out, a lot of people actually do care.
A recent report from polling and insight company CivicScience indicates that half of all consumers are ‘highly concerned’ about their privacy while online. The graph above, taken directly from the report, shows that a very small minority, only 6% of the nearly 17,000 people polled, said that they were not concerned at all, and 13% were only slightly concerned. That means that less than one out of five people actually don’t care all that much about maintaining a level of privacy while online.
Some interesting details regarding CivicScience’s study include the fact that there was no significant difference in the level of concern between men and women. The same is more or less true for people of different income and education levels, although people earning more than $150,000 per year were slightly more likely to say that they weren’t concerned about their privacy. There was a vast difference in opinion when it came to the age of respondents, however, as younger adults are much more likely to say that they have no concern for their privacy than older individuals, as seen below.
age concern
Source: CivicScience

Also of note, people who are engaged in social media are less likely to be concerned about online privacy. For Facebook users, half of respondents who agreed that the company doesn’t do enough to protect user privacy also said they were slightly or not concerned about the issue. Twitter users are twice as likely to say they’re not concerned about privacy than those who do not have an account.
A final interesting caveat is what people actually expect in terms of data use from these companies. In fact, 83% of respondents said that they strongly believe that companies should disclose each and every detail regarding the ways their data is collected and used. On top of that 88% think that when they hand over their personal information to a company, that company should never use it for any other reason.
CivicScience also issued a second part to the initial report that revealed 63% of those polled were very concerned about giving their personal information to businesses, and 56% of those people think that companies generally don’t keep the best interests of users in mind when handling personal information. To conclude, the report states that, “U.S. adults are highly concerned about their privacy as it relates to corporate use practices, with little trust in the companies that collect information and a very strong belief that the core business practices of data broker companies — re-selling of personal consumer information — should not be allowed.”
The question is, if this holds true, why do people continue to do it? Is the amount of convenience, and the overall cultural permeation of companies like Facebook and Twitter so deep that people, despite their concerns, use these services anyway? It appears that may be the case. After all, a huge number of Americans use these sites on a daily basis, and rarely make a stink about things. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 74% of all online adults use at least one social networking site, as of January 2014. Within that segment, 71% use Facebook, 19% use Twitter, and 22% use LinkedIn. Of course, these numbers may have changed, with the meteoric rise of other sites and apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
With that in mind, it’s obvious from CivicScience’s data that people do care about their privacy, and don’t necessarily trust companies, including social networking businesses, to look after their data. Despite that fact, people continue to use them, and in large numbers. It’s irrational and counterintuitive, but appears to simply be the current state of affairs in America.
Are companies exploiting this apparent behavior gap? Is it possible that businesses and social networks know users won’t abandon its services, despite the fact that they may not completely trust it? It’s a real possibility, and until people start to take privacy seriously and look for more secure (and possibly paid) alternatives, businesses don’t have much of an incentive to change course.
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