2012-04-20 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Privacy Policy, Not Policy Of Privacy
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

Reading a website privacy policy can be daunting for consumers without law or technology degrees. The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s leading consumer protection agency, has called for greater transparency regarding the collection and use of consumers’ information, but policies continue to be written in technical jargon, couched language, and legalese. With mobile devices, the difficulties are compounded by the small size of the screen: now consumers must read technical jargon, couched language, and legalese in 2-point font on a 2-inch by 1 3/4-inch screen.

There is no federal law setting forth baseline protections for websites’ collection, use, and disclosure of personal information. Standards of privacy vary widely, from consumer-friendly to nonexistent. A consumer must read a site’s privacy policy to understand its privacy practices.

There are four important questions that consumers should ask when reading a privacy policy. First, what does the policy say about how the site will collect and use your info? Does it require your consent? Second, does it tell you if and how the site will share your information with third parties, and who these are? Third, will you be able to see the information collected about you, and correct inaccuracies? Fourth, how secure will your data, retained in a database, be if the database is breached, for example, through hacking or employee error?

Consumers can look for third party seals of approval from organizations like TRUSTe or BBBOnline, which allow a website to display their seals if the site agrees to abide by the organizations’ self-regulatory principles (and pays a fee). Clicking on the seal should take you to a site that explains what the seal stands for. (If you can’t click, the seal could be a fraud, copied onto the site to fake consumers.) Don’t rely on a seal for privacy protection without an understanding of its meaning.

In 2008, a study by the University of California at Berkeley showed that many consumers believe the mere presence of a website privacy policy means the site would not share users’ personal information. Wrong! A privacy policy merely sets forth a website’s privacy practices.

Passive consumer information collection is becoming increasingly sophisticated as technology progresses. Through behavioral tracking, websites can collect information on online browsing habits, and use it to serve ads or sell to advertising networks. In January, Google announced plans to change its privacy policies effective March 1 to track users across nearly all of its services. Now user data collected by one Google service can be shared with its other platforms, including Gmail, Google Search, and YouTube, if the user is signed in to these services. Privacy advocates in the US and Europe are challenging this change. Consumer class action lawsuits are in the works.

Often website users are not aware of a site’s information practices. Insist on being informed, in terms that you understand. Consider leaving the site if you cannot find answers to your concerns, or if you don’t like or can’t understand the answers. Your privacy may not be as private as you think.

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