This page considers consumer attitudes to privacy - their
own and that of other people - and what we know about
It covers -
Preceding pages of this guide (and the associated profile
on the Australian privacy regime) have argued that terms
such as 'privacy' and 'personal data protection' elicit
a range of reactions, depending on who is being asked,
when and in what circumstances.
It is common to encounter claims that individuals in western
societies are deeply committed to privacy protection (or
merely have a strong sense of their own privacy, something
that is to be respected and even safeguarded). It is just
as common to encounter claims that privacy is dead (and
unmourned by most consumers), that people are largely
indifferent to privacy abuses or that in a supposedly
unprecedented borderless 'war on terror' they will readily
abandon privacy in favour of strengthened security.
In practice there is considerable uncertainty about consumer
attitudes, with questions about bias in particular data
collections, difficulty in matching data between particular
studies and problems in relating stated attitudes to actual
the shape of attitudes
Overseas studies demonstrate that privacy is one of the
major potholes in the information highway. Some show that
consumers (individuals and businesses) refuse to interact
with many sites that demand particular information. That
is a problem, because the competitor may be just a few
clicks away. Others show that users respond by supplying
false information. Others fuel a growing demand for more
comprehensive and more effective regulation.
Scott McNealey of Sun claims that privacy is already history:
it is gone, so get over it. Emily Nussbaum, discussing
generational divides, captured some attitudes among over-39s
with the fictional quote
today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense
of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic
little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers,
their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their
dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends
instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant
messages. They are interested only in attention—and
yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds
from one virtual stage to another.
Harrisson and other animateurs of Mass Observation in
UK during the 1930s noted that contrary to claims about
British reticence, people were often eager to reveal intimate
aspects of their lives. Solveig Singleton's Privacy
as Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate
Privacy in the Private Sector, a paper
for the US Cato Institute, argues that there is "little
to fear from private collection and transfer of consumer
That assertion is inconsistent with statements by industry
leaders and with a history of government responses to
It is clear that new technology, such as automated collection
of data about online activity, large-scale data profiling
and data trading, offers
significant opportunities for privacy abuses. It also
provides a major incentive, in an environment where the
right information may be the crucial factor in a sale
or an election. Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian's
Privacy: The Key to Electronic Commerce and paper
on Data Mining: Staking a Claim on Your Privacy
illustrate those points.
More importantly, it is inconsistent with consumer and
business perceptions that there are substantive concerns.
Irrespective of whether those concerns are firmly based
in reality - and documents highlighted in the following
pages demonstrate that there are problems - the perceptions
need to be addressed.
Consistent with comments earlier in this guide, there
are substantial variations in community attitudes to health
privacy within and between nations, reflecting factors
personal experience of individuals and perceptions of
powerlessness (including awareness of bad practice and
understanding of network technologies)
comprehensiveness of privacy legislation and efficacy
of privacy codes
of health data in employment, insurance, lending and
shape of advocacy by particular organisations.
is also apparent within the legal and academic communities,
with Australian Mirko Bagaric for example asserting in
is a middle-class invention by people with nothing else
to worry about. Normally they would have every right
to live in their moral fog, but not when their confusion
permeates the feeble minds of law-makers and puts the
innocent at risk.
The right to privacy is the adult equivalent of Santa
Claus and unicorns. No one has yet been able to identify
where the right to privacy comes from and why we need
it. In fact, the right to privacy is destructive of
our wellbeing. It prevents us attaining things that
really matter, such as safety and security and makes
us fear one another.
A strong right to privacy is no more than a request
for secrecy - refuge of the guilty, paranoid and misguided,
none of whom should be heeded in sorting through the
moral priorities of the community.
Some sense of consumer attitudes can be gained by grazing
various published reports, including those conducted on
a commercial basis.
In the US for example EPIC
notes the 2000 BusinessWeek/Harris Poll indicating that
86% of users want a web site to obtain opt-in consent
before collecting user information. That figure is consistent
with the 2000 Pew Internet & American Life Project
survey indicating that 86% of respondents supported opt-in
privacy policies. The BusinessWeek survey found that 57%
of respondents favored laws to regulate how personal information
is used, with only 15% supporting industry self-regulation.
75% characterised website privacy notices as "absolutely
essential" or "very important."
A 2001 ASNE
study found that 51% of US respondents were "very
concerned" (30% were "somewhat concerned")
that a business might violate their privacy, with 50%
"very concerned" about violation by government.
52% reported that "very little" or "no
confidence at all" that businesses use personal data
exactly as promised. 70% had refused to supply data to
a company because it was "too personal"; 62%
had requested removal of names from marketing databases.
A 2002 Harris Poll found that a majority of US consumers
did not trust businesses to handle their personal data.
83% had requested expungement from mailing lists.
The 1993 Harris Equifax Health Information Privacy Survey
noted earlier in this guide reported that in the US some
believe that protecting the confidentiality of medical
records is "absolutely essential" or "very
important" in health care reform
believe that federal legislation should designate all
personal medical information as "sensitive"
and impose penalties for unauthorized disclosure.
believe that it is not acceptable for medical information
about them to be provided, without their individual
approval, by pharmacists to direct marketers who want
to mail offers to new medications
believe that medical claims submitted under an employer
health plan may be seen by their employer and used to
affect their job opportunities
do not want medical researchers to use their records
for studies, even if the individual is never identified
personally, unless researchers first get the individual's
worry (with 38% "very concerned") that medical
information from a computerized national health information
system will be used for many non-health purposes
report that they or member of their family have personally
paid for a medical test, treatment, or counseling rather
than submit a bill or claim under a health care plan
One of the vehement participants in the Australian domain
name industry blithely dismissed debate in 2006 about
the Australia Card, claiming that
is really boring is the constant bleating about privacy
as though it mattered and was of such importance that
the average person in the street actually cares about
assertion provoked the tart response -
Put your money where your mouth is.
Post your complete medical histories for yourself and
your immediate family.
Also please post statements for both your savings and
credit card accounts.
James Katz's 1996 paper
on Understanding communication privacy: Unlisted telephone
subscribers in the United States notes that in Japan
and Europe there are few unlisted numbers compared to
the US (where around 25% of numbers unlisted nationally
and 33% in California are unlisted).
what information is available
In Australia readily available reports include
into Community attitudes towards Privacy in Australia,
Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2004 | here
in Diverse Victoria: Research report into attitudes
towards privacy in diverse communities,
attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Office
of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here
Business attitudes towards privacy in Australia,
Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here
attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Office
of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here
Salient overseas lists and studies include -
Westin's Bibliography of Surveys of the U.S. Public,
and PANDAB inventory
2007 OCLC study
by Cathy De Rosa, Joanne Cantrell & Andy Havens
on Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World
Some critiques, of value both for identifying flaws in
particular surveys and more broadly for making sense of
the policy debate and particular agendas, are -
Privacy Polls & Surveys page (2006) | here
Rights Clearinghouse (2000) | here
Kumaraguru & Lorrie Cranor's Privacy Indexes:
A Survey of Westin's Studies (2005) | (PDF)
Competitive Enterprise Institute With a Grain of
Salt: What Consumer Privacy Surveys Don't Tell Us
paper (2001) by
Issue Analysis Jim Harper & Solveig Singleton |
Privacy Surveys page (2000) | here
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