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On Privacy, Consumers' Concerns and Actions Diverge

Among those who know how to limit data collection and use, many take action

When consumers are asked whether they worry about digital privacy, they say yes, they are concerned. However, a new eMarketer report, “The Digital Privacy Dilemma: Consumers Care—Sometimes—About Privacy, Though Their Actions Often Say Otherwise,” finds that the degree of such concern is not terribly high. And while voicing worry about privacy, they often compromise that privacy in their behavior.

In polling of US internet users conducted by Harris Interactive in June 2012 for TRUSTe, a company that provides privacy-related services to businesses, nearly all the respondents said they worried about digital privacy at least sometimes. But fewer than half said they did so “frequently” or “always.” While the findings suggest that serious worriers constitute more than a niche audience, they’re less than a landslide of online consumers.

And while many consumers intend to be more protective of their digital privacy, that doesn’t always mean they’ll take practical steps to do so. At the very least, though, consumers’ stated intention to be stingier about giving out information is a telltale sign they’re aware of the issue and poised to take it more seriously than in the past.

Digital know-how is a limiting factor on consumers’ actions, though. In a February 2012 Pew survey that focused on search engine usage, just 38% of online adults said they were “aware of ways to limit how much personal information websites can collect about them.” Even among college graduates, fewer than half (44%) claimed to have such knowledge.

Still, among respondents who claimed to know how to keep personal information away from the websites they use, large majorities in Pew’s polling said they were taking several steps along those lines.

In some contexts, people can opt not to let a company collect and use data about them. But when this also means forgoing the services that company offers, it’s a step consumers are reluctant to take. “When you ask people, ‘Are you comfortable being tracked,’ they’ll say no,” said John Montgomery, chief operating officer of media investment company GroupM. “Yet when they sign in to Google or Apple—and Apple has a 23-page privacy or conditions policy when you sign in to iTunes—a tiny percentage of people decide to opt out. And the reason why is because if you opt out, you can’t get the service.”


The full report, “The Digital Privacy Dilemma: Consumers Care—Sometimes—About Privacy, Though Their Actions Often Say Otherwise,” also answers these key questions:

  • Looking beyond simple care-or-don’t-care numbers, how much do consumers care about digital privacy?
  • What steps, if any, do consumers take to keep personal information private?
  • How do consumers feel about online behavioral advertising that relies on usage of data about their digital activities?

This report is available to eMarketer corporate subscription clients only. Total Access clients, log in and view the report now.


Check out today’s other articles, “Brands Doing Societal Good Drive More Purchases” and “In Canada, Moms' Online Activities Center on Social.”

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