The next step in the battle for consumer privacy?

A recent survey of 2,000 US individuals by Hide My Ass VPN showed some unnerving data: 63 percent of them have experienced online security issues, but only a little more than half of that subset have made permanent behavior changes afterward.

consumer privacy

Also, 67 percent of users said that they would like extra layers of consumer privacy, but only very small percentages of them use privacy and security-enhancing tools (privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins, two-factor authentication, encryption, VPNs) that are already at their disposal.

“70 percent noted that the exposure of personal information online reduces their level of social media use and presence, but only a quarter have strict privacy restrictions in place on social media,” the study showed.

All in all, it seems that privacy is important to most users, but most of them are not yet ready to work for it.

Granted, there are so many services and sites we visit daily, and users could be simply overwhelmed with all the options they have to opt-in or opt-out of each time they set up a new account or juggle existing ones. Add to this the fact that these options are sometimes very complex and confusing, and you can see why some many users have apparently given up on privacy.

But some haven’t, and are taking a different approach to protecting their privacy.

According to another recent study by TRUSTe and the National Cyber Security Alliance, some Americans have begun penalizing companies that they don’t trust or have stopped trusting with their data.

“Among all online adults, 36 percent have stopped using a website and 29 percent have stopped using an app in the last twelve months because they did not trust them to handle personal information securely. 47 percent of adults who have stopped using either a website or app said that this was because they were asked to provide too much information,” the study found.

“Interestingly 19 percent said they continued to use a website they didn’t trust to handle their personal information responsibly, with 31 percent of those who reported doing this saying it was because it was the only website that sold a particular product or service.”

Change is in the air

Generally, consumers have started asking for more transparency in exchange for trust, and want easy-to-use tools to protect personal information. They are saying that most of the onus of keeping their data secure and private should be on the companies, not themselves – they are starting to ask for privacy by default or, at least, a level of privacy that can be achieved more easily than today.

Choosing a company one trusts is increasingly becoming the starting point for consumers who want to protect their privacy and identity.

“By doing basic research on this, consumers can make informed choices on the service and product providers they would rather patronize based on their perceived privacy and security risks,” notes Eduard Goodman, Chief Privacy Officer of IDT911.

“For instance (and this is NOT an endorsement) I personally use Apple and Microsoft products rather than Google/Android (with the exception of search), due to privacy concerns. Apple products/services and Microsoft products/services cost more money, but I would rather spend my money on my services than spend my privacy on services. Though, admittedly, not everyone has a choice or cares,” he added.

Users do not consider all information equally sensitive and worth being protected.

“Information like financial records, health information, religious affiliation or sexual orientation are part of the core of our individual identities, and this is one of the main reasons why people have fought so hard to protect privacy,” says Goodman. “Other behaviors (purchase habits and the like), unless revealing the above mentioned sensitive privacy areas, are less private by nature and less protected by Americans.”

He’s not that worried about leaked data in general. Breached or stolen data that’s out there is not something that can be reliably searched and attributed to specific individuals in the long term, he believes. “It all becomes background internet ‘data noise’,” he says.

Individuals can’t do much about breaches and leaked data in general, but choosing companies and entities that value privacy and security is a good place to start forcing a change. And a user-friendly and -mindful approach to sharing information with governments or with third parties (from a product marketing perspective) is a good way for companies to earn the trust of their potential customers.

“Insisting that those you do business with live up to those expectations is another good place to start,” he notes. “Unless corporate America hears from the American public that they value good privacy and security, those in unregulated industries will continue to take reckless paths and approaches to securing private data.”

Why is the battle for consumer privacy important?

This insistence is crucial especially because it’s difficult to imagine the complete long-term impact of loss of privacy for individuals. We have already witnessed people losing their jobs because of lack of online discretion, but the kids of today will likely feel the effect even more.

“I see a world where my children’s college application will be scrutinized by a social media monitoring engine in addition to an admissions board. This practice, though sporadic and non-uniform, will now be a standard part of the college acceptance evaluation,” says Goodman.

“I worry that everything they may have ever shared or commented on under their name on Vine, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc. will be the foundation of a real ‘permanent record.’ I’m also concerned that social media databases will be cross referenced with other databases and, using analytics, will evaluate the college-worthiness or employability of any and all applicants in the future. Yes, a bit Orwellian, but something that is already starting to happen.”

He’s worried that Gen X’ers like himself were the last generation able to avoid the true ‘permanent record’ documentation of the (sometimes) poor choices of their youth.

A good piece of advice that should be given out to every user is this one: “If you would not be willing to share what you may be posting under your identity with your grandmother, your teacher, your priest or rabbi, then you should probably just keep it to yourself.”

But while discretion about what one posts online is great advice in general, kids aren’t exactly known for their great reasoning skills and, what’s more important, they are lousy at estimating the real-world repercussions of their choices.

And, let’s face it, there are also adult users out there that seem unable to make good privacy choices, so those who can and care should force changes for their sake, as well.

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