Spending, Trading, or Something Else?

This post was originally published in design mind on February 2, 2011. It was republished by psfk.

In discussions of privacy and personal data, it’s becoming more common to say that people “trade” or “spend” information about themselves in exchange for online services. This metaphor implies that people are actually aware that an exchange is taking place. But are people making a conscious choice to share their information? Are they aware of how easily and often information about them is made available to marketers?

The sinister tone of The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of this issue would seem to indicate public awareness is low. I get a little shiver every time I see a new article in the “What They Know” series.Jeez, what do they know? Should I go all cash? Stop using Gmail? Cover my head in tin foil?

Perhaps a better way to understand awareness levels is to ask people what they think they are sharing. We did just that in our recent survey. Our hunch was that people were highly uninformed, and our results seem to confirm this hypothesis.

Question: “To the best of your knowledge, what personal information have you put online yourself, either directly or indirectly, by your use of online services?  Think about the information that you have had to enter because you registered for a site, signed up for a service like online banking, created a social network profile, used location services on a mobile phone, or submitted your financial information because you bought something.

What’s most interesting in this data is what people think they are not sharing.  Only about a third of users think they are sharing the “general location from which [they] are accessing the internet.” Furthermore, only about 20% of users think they are sharing their IP address, web searches, or browser history. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

General Location/IP address
In our survey, we asked about both IP address and location because we didn’t expect “IP address” to be a meaningful term to most people. In both cases, we were interested in location sharing. And while more people thought they were sharing “general location” (~30%) than IP address (~20%), the fact is that most are likely sharing both. An IP address contains location information provided by your Internet Service Provider. While it may not disclose your actual location in all situations (if you are using a VPN, for example), your IP address is visible to any web site you visit. This means that most Internet users are probably sharing their location.

Web Search History
Only about 20% of people think they are sharing their web searches. But I’m not sure how you couldn’t share these. Simply by entering in a search, you are at least sharing it with the search provider and possibly also your browser provider.

Browser History
Finally, we have browser history, which less than 20% of people think they are sharing. However, the aforementioned “What They Know” series tells us that many popular web sites install tracking cookies onto visitors’ computers that track browser history as well as “what people are doing on a web page.” These cookies are capable of assembling an individual profile that also includes data like income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Even without cookies, web sites have ways of seeing what other sites you’ve visited.

With all of these data types, it is possible that some users might take advantage of private browsing to mitigate tracking, but there is some evidence that suggests usage of private browsing is quite low.

We can safely conclude that there is a very low awareness of passive data sharing. So perhaps the “spending” and “trading” metaphors are off base. It’s true that we get something valuable in return for our data, but we can’t be said to “spend” it if we aren’t consciously choosing to share it.

If there were a financial metaphor that describes the personal data economy, perhaps “pickpocketing” would be more accurate.

Image from flickr user dullhunk (cc)

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