02 JunPrivacy Research Released

For the last year I advised a team of School of Information Masters students (Joshua Gomez, Travis Pinnick, and Ashkan Soltani) on their research into the privacy practices of popular websites. Today they have publicly released their findings on their website: knowprivacy.org.

They found that there is a mismatch between consumer expectations and website privacy practices and posting a privacy policy alone does not bridge that gap. In particular, they’ve shed light on the use of third-party tracking via web bugs. We were surprised to learn that many of the most-visited sites on the internet state in their privacy policies that they do not share information with third parties, but then also state that they allow third parties to place web bugs on their site. Perhaps that’s not “sharing,” but inviting the third parties in to do the collecting themselves achieves the same result: users visit one site and are unaware that information about them and that visit winds up in the hands of an unknown third party.

They also found a surprising dominance by Google in the web bug space. Google operates several trackers and at least one of their trackers appears on 92 of the top 100 most-visited sites in the United States. When one looks at a larger collection of domains (nearly 400,000) that contain at least one web bug, they found a Google tracker on over 88% of those domains. While other tracking companies have good coverage of the most-visited sites, no other company came close to Google’s dominance when the domains considered was broadened.

Through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they also received data on actual consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and compared those complaints with those gathered from the California Office of Privacy Protection, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and TRUSTe. Here they found that consumers want control over the information gathered about them and are particularly sensitive about the public display of that information. One of the take-aways from this is that while the FTC has, in the past, thought about privacy in terms of “harm” users are largely concerned instead with a lack of control.

The full report makes sound recommendations for both website operators and regulators to try to address these issues. The group received some recognition as a finalist in the Bears Breaking Boundaries Science, Technology, and Engineering Policy competition, and a group of outside judges at the School of Information’s Final Project Showcase awarded them a James R. Chen Award for their work. Today, the New York Times has a piece on their research entitled: Google is Top Tracker of Surfers in Study.

One Response to “Privacy Research Released”

  1. With all thats going on in the world in these days, internet privacy is really what the world needs. We don’t need spies, spooks, or governments looking over our shoulders. We can handle our own individualism and can maintain our daily lives without government oversight.