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The Digital Privacy Dilemma

Consumers Care—Sometimes—About Privacy, Though Their Actions Often Say Otherwise

New York, NY (December 12, 2012) – 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,” 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.

The report looks at some of the reasons behind consumers’ competing feelings and answers key questions including:

  • 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?

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.

This does not mean digital privacy is merely the preoccupation of a few oddballs. When ordinary people do think about the matter—as most do at least occasionally—they’re wary of having companies track their online activity. Moreover, they tend to conflate issues like identity theft with marketers’ collection and usage of data about their digital activity. Many claim to have taken specific steps to limit their leakage of personal information.

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.

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.

“Consumers aren’t very aware of—and show scant interest in learning about—the “value exchange,” in which usage of digital information helps support the free content they enjoy,” said eMarketer. “Nor is there reason to think greater transparency about how companies use such data will quickly resolve the worries people feel.”

Though consumers likely don’t care as much about digital privacy as survey toplines suggest, a marketer would be unwise to ignore the unease they do feel about it.

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Media Contact:

Clark Fredricksen
Vice President, Communications, eMarketer
Tel. 212-763-6056
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Posted on December 12, 2012.