A poll touted as demonstrating that consumers are more worried about hackers than about persistent tracking of their online activities says more about research bias than the sensibilities of U.S. consumers.
The telephone survey of 1,000 voters was conducted in November and released Dec. 20 by its sponsor, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) – an organization created to lobby for the interests of computer- and telecommunications companies.
Poll results show 75 percent of U.S. consumers are worried about having their personal information stolen by hackers, and 54 percent are worried about their online behavior being tracked by advertisers and online service providers.
The CCIA’s interpretation of that result – plus a series of leading questions and questionable statistical interpretations – is that the American public wants their elected representatives to “more aggressively go after cybercriminals,” according to a statement in the announcement from Ed Black, president and CEO of the trade organization: “By wide margins this survey clearly shows that ID theft has touched the majority of consumers in some way, and that hacking is more worrisome to consumers than tracking.”
It would be surprising if hacking and identity theft weren’t the number-one concern, considering the frequency and severity of data breaches against credit-card companies and online service providers.
However, it’s a stretch to assume that people who reflexively say “hackers” when asked about online threats aren’t also concerned that CCIA members track every pageview of every consumer they can reach.
They’re not tracking that information for “national security” or any other purpose that could, theoretically, benefit the consumers being spied upon; CCIA members collect that data so they can exploit customers more efficiently, with or without any benefit to the consumer.
They’re not even very careful with the information, as the long, long list of successful data breaches by cyber criminals demonstrates.
The 40 million credit cards stolen from Target during November and December – the second-largest data breach in U.S. history – didn’t happen because customers were sloppy about protecting their credit-card data. It happened because Target didn’t do enough to protect data from its point-of-sale systems after the data was already in or on its way to Target’s central data repositories.
“Most” consumers take steps to protect their personal information online, even according to the CCIA’s interpretation, which persistently and disingenuously paints the protection of personal data as a choice between being shown personalized ads or not.
Survey results showing that 68 percent of consumers have adjusted the privacy levels of their online accounts – as the CCIA survey showed – is a good indication that those consumers would like to keep control of their information themselves, rather than letting online service providers do it.
It is not an irrelevant bit of data that should be blithely dismissed by noting that only 2 percent said they changed their settings because they “didn’t want to see ads.”
The CCIA’s evidence showing that consumers are worried about hackers, but copacetic with whatever CCIA members do with their personal information boils down to this: 61 percent said they prefer a free service supported by ads, and only 33 percent want to pay for the same service if they can use it with no ads targeted to them (not use it with no ads at all).
That doesn’t mean consumers love ads; it means they accept the need for ads they dislike, but hate being tracked and targeted so much that a third would pay to block enough tracking to simply reduce the number of ads they see.
In fact, even CCIA’s numbers show consumers taking a whole series of steps to keep control of their own information: 73 percent of survey respondents chose not to allow an online company to remember their credit-card information after a purchase; 65 percent set their browsers to disable cookies; and 53 percent chose to keep an app from keeping track of their location.
Those steps would reduce the impact of personal information stolen by hackers. They also express a mistrust of online service providers or willingness to have their activity or location tracked by and for the exclusive benefit of strangers rather than themselves.
According to a September survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 86 percent of Internet users have taken steps to cover their tracks online, and 55 percent have done something to avoid observation by a particular company, organization or government.
The survey showed consumers are fearful of having their personal information hacked and stolen, but are nearly as concerned about being spied on and harassed, taken advantage of, or having their privacy invaded by organization tracking their activities online.
If anything, Pew’s findings show that consumers don’t accept advertising and tracking because they don’t mind; they accept it grudgingly because they don’t know how to avoid it, though they dislike it even more than they do spying by government agencies that prompted a series of national scandals.
“Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and an author of a report on the survey findings. “Their concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance. In fact, they are more intent on trying to mask their personal information from hackers, advertisers, friends and family members than they are trying to avoid observation by the government.”
Image: Pew Internet and American Life Survey, Sept. 2013