Technology

Internet Users Worry About Online Privacy but Feel Powerless to Do Much About It

Consumers do enjoy the convenience of the apps they use but are individually overwhelmed when it comes to defending their privacy.
Internet Users Worry About Online Privacy but Feel Powerless to Do Much About It
Image credit: Andrew Brookes | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Vice President, Content & Commerce Practice Lead
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When it comes to our collective sense of internet privacy, 2018 is definitely the year of awareness. It’s funny that it took Facebook’s unholy partnership with a little-known data-mining consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica to raise the alarm. After all, there were already abundant examples of how our information was being used by unidentified forces on the web. It really took nothing more than writing the words "Cabo San Lucas" as part of a throwaway line in some personal email to a friend to initiate a slew of Cabo resort ads and Sammy Hagar’s face plastering the perimeters of our social media feeds.

In 2018, it’s never been more clear that when we embrace technological developments, all of which make our lives easier, we are truly taking hold of a double-edged sword. But has our awakening come a little too late? As a society, are we already so hooked on the conveniences internet-enabled technologies provide us that we’re hard-pressed making the claim that we want the control of our personal data back?

Related: 3 Social Media Data Lessons in the Wake of Cambridge Analytica

It’s an interesting question. Our digital marketing firm recently conducted a survey to better understand how people feel about internet privacy issues and the new movement to re-establish control over what app providers and social networks do with our personal information.

Given the current media environment and scary headlines regarding online security breaches, the poll results, at least on the surface, were fairly predictable. According to our study, web users overwhelmingly object to how our information is being shared with and used by third-party vendors. No surprise here, a whopping 90 percent of those polled were very concerned about internet privacy. In a classic example of "Oh, how the mighty have fallen," Facebook and Google have suddenly landed in the ranks of the companies we trust the least, with only 3 percent and 4 percent of us, respectively, claiming to have any faith in how they handled our information.

Despite consumers’ apparent concern about online security, the survey results also revealed participants do very little to safeguard their information online, especially if doing so comes at the cost of convenience and time. In fact, 60 percent of them download apps without reading terms and conditions and close to one in five (17 percent) report that they’ll keep an app they like, even if it does breach their privacy by tracking their whereabouts.

Related: Tougher Data Privacy Rules Are a Scammer's Nightmare, but Ethical Marketers Can Stay Calm

While the survey reveals only 18 percent say they are “very confident” when it comes to trusting retails sites with their personal information, the sector is still on track to exceed a $410 billion ecommerce spend this year. This, despite more than half (54 percent) reporting they feel less secure purchasing from online retailers after reading about online breach after online breach.

What's become apparent from our survey is that while people are clearly dissatisfied with the state of internet privacy, they feel uninspired or simply ill-equipped to do anything about it. It appears many are hooked on the conveniences online living affords them and resigned to the loss of privacy if that’s what it costs to play.

The findings are not unique to our survey. In a recent Harvard Business School study, people who were told the ads appearing in their social media timelines had been selected specifically based on their internet search histories showed far less engagement with the ads, compared to a control group who didn't know how they'd been targeted. The study revealed that the actual act of company transparency, coming clean about the marketing tactics employed, dissuaded user response in the end.

As is the case with innocent schoolchildren, the world is a far better place when we believe there is an omniscient Santa Claus who magically knows our secret desires, instead of it being a crafty gift exchange rigged by the parents who clearly know the contents of our wish list. We say we want safeguards and privacy. We say we want transparency. But when it comes to a World Wide Web, where all the cookies have been deleted and our social media timeline knows nothing about us, the user experience becomes less fluid.

Related: Apple Will Let All Users Download Their Collected Personal Data

The irony is, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those polled in our survey don’t believe that companies having access to our personal information leads to a better, more personalized, online experience at all, which is the chief reason companies like Facebook state for wanting our personal information in the first place. And yet, when an app we've installed doesn't let us tag our location to a post or inform us when a friend has tagged us in a photo or alerted us that the widget we were searching for is on sale this week, we feel slighted by our brave new world.

With the introduction of GDPR regulations this summer, the European Union has taken, collectively, the important first steps toward regaining some of the online privacy that we, as individuals, have been unable to take. GDPR casts the first stone at the Goliath that’s had free rein leveraging our personal information against us. By doling out harsh penalties and fines for those who abuse our private stats -- or at least those who aren’t abundantly transparent as to how they intend to use those stats -- the EU, and by extension, those countries conducting online business with them, has finally initiated a movement to curtail the hitherto laissez-faire practices of commercial internet enterprises. For this cyberspace Wild West, there’s finally a new sheriff in town.

I imagine that our survey takers applaud this action, although only about 25 percent were even aware of GDPR. At least on paper, the legislation has given us back some control over the privacy rights we’ve been letting slip away since we first signed up for a MySpace account. Will this new regulation affect our user experience on the internet? More than half of our respondents don’t think so, and perhaps, for now, we are on the way toward a balancing point between the information that makes us easier to market to and the information that’s been being used for any purpose under the sun. It’s time to leverage this important first step, and stay vigilant of its effectiveness with a goal of gaining back even more privacy while online.

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