Even accounting for the slight differences in question wording between the two studies, it is clear that there is deeply embedded and long-standing confusion among consumers when it comes to privacy policies and the protections they afford.
These misperceptions are enhanced by privacy policies that are often difficult to interpret, even to the small number of consumers who do try to read them, says Turow. “Other researchers have found that people do not read privacy policies — they’re unreadable. They are filled with jargon that is meant to be understandable only to the people writing them, or to people who work in the advertising industry today. Words like ‘affiliate’: nobody outside of the digital marketing industry knows what that means.”
Turow’s research also suggests that ordinary users don’t fully understand the scope of the data that is being collected on them — or how small amounts of data can be used to create a much more detailed portrait when matched with information from third-party sites that collect and share various types of customer information with each other. “The general sense among marketers is that people understand that their data is being used, but we’ve found in our research that people don’t truly understand how data mining works. They may realize that one or two pieces of their information are being given out; what they don’t realize is that those one or two data points can be linked with other sources to uncover information they would have never given out in the first place.”
Ultimately, this issue is likely to become even more contentious in the future as wearable devices, clothes, smart appliances, connected cars, and other elements of daily life become linked together. Many experts have told Pew Research that they think privacy challenges will worsen as the Internet of Things expands, and that people will be increasingly enticed (if only grudgingly) to give up personal information in return for the conveniences afforded by digital technology.
Test your knowledge of the web and compare yourself with other Americans in our Web IQ quiz.
Topics: Online Privacy and Safety
Aaron Smith is an associate director for research at Pew Research Center.