Privacy Does Matter


By Samuel Greengard

According to a just released Pew Internet & American Life Project study, "Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online," a whopping 86 percent of Internet users have taken steps to mask or remove their online digital footprints. These actions range from clearing cookies to encrypting email.

In addition, 55 percent of Internet users have tried to avoid observation by specific people, organizations or the government. Altogether, 59 percent of Internet users believe it is not possible to remain completely anonymous online, and 68 percent say that current laws aren't adequate.

Unlike the Europe Union, which has far stricter privacy controls in place (including restrictions on how companies can reuse and repurpose data), the United States is a near free-for-all. Of course, it's human nature—and corporate nature—to seek out any possible advantage, and there's currently nothing illegal about the way most businesses currently collect, store and use data.

However, just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that's it's the wisest approach—or in everyone's best interests. After all, junk food and cigarettes are legal, but a steady dose of the two will likely gift you with a half-life.

More people are realizing that as their concerns about online privacy grow. I've taken to using Ghostery to stamp out tracking via Web bugs, pixels and beacons. I also block most third-party cookies.

According to the Pew survey, 64 percent of respondents have cleared cookies and browser history, 41 percent have deleted something they've posted in the past, and 36 percent avoid specific Websites because of privacy concerns. Moreover, 18 percent have tried to mask their identity online.

Some push and pull over technology and privacy is inevitable. But the problem, as the Pew survey indicates, is that things are completely out of balance in the U.S. An astounding 28 percent of Internet users have attempted to block advertising.

"Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible," noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.

It's time to seriously rethink the way we handle online privacy. Without needed changes, consumer confidence and trust in businesses and government institutions will erode, and conflicts will grow.

Consumers should know who holds their data and how it will be used. They should have control over what happens to their data. Opt-in and buy-in are always preferable to extracting data without user consent.

The short-term gains associated with unfettered data collection aren't worth the long-term costs.