Understanding Net Users Attitudes about Online Privacy

Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 11:22:04 -0400
From: "Lorrie Faith Cranor" <lorrie@research.att.com>
Subject: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes about Online Privacy

My colleagues and I have released an AT&T Labs-Research Technical
Report on our study of Net users' attitudes about online privacy.
I have attached the executive summary below. The full report is
available online at:
Feel free to forward this.


Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes
About Online Privacy

by Lorrie Faith Cranor, Joseph Reagle, and Mark S. Ackerman 

14 April 1999

Executive Summary

People are concerned about privacy, particularly on the
Internet. While many studies have provided evidence of this concern,
few have explored the nature of the concern in detail, especially for
the online environment. With this study, we have tried to better
understand the nature of online privacy concerns; we look beyond the
fact that people are concerned and attempt to understand how they are
concerned. We hope our results will help inform both policy decisions
as well as the development of technology tools that can assist
Internet users in protecting their privacy. 

We present results here from the analysis of 381 questionnaires
completed between November 6 and November 13, 1998 by American
Internet users. The sample was drawn from the FamilyPC
magazine/Digital Research, Inc. Family Panel. While this is not a
statistically representative sample of US Internet users, our
respondents are heavy Internet users, and quite possibly lead
innovators. As such, we believe that this sample is important for
understanding the future Internet user population. 

Major Findings

Internet users are more likely to provide information when they are
not identified. When presented with scenarios involving the provision
of personal data to Web sites, our respondents were much less willing
to provide information when personally identifiable information was

Some types of data are more sensitive than others. Our respondents
were generally comfortable providing preference information to Web
sites. However, they were often very uncomfortable providing credit
card numbers and social security numbers. We also observed significant
differences in sensitivity to seemingly similar kinds of data. For
example, while postal mail address, phone number, and email address
can all be used to contact someone, most of our respondents said they
would never or rarely feel comfortable providing their phone number
but would usually or always feel comfortable providing their email
address. The comfort level for postal mail address fell somewhere in

Many factors are important in decisions about information
disclosure. When deciding whether to provide information to Web sites,
our respondents report that the most important factor is whether or
not information will be shared with other companies and
organizations. Other highly important factors include whether
information is used in an identifiable way, the kind of information
collected, and the purpose for which the information is
collected. Whether a site posts a privacy policy, whether a site has a
privacy seal of approval, and whether a site discloses a data
retention policy were viewed as important, but considerably less so
than the other factors we asked about.

Acceptance of the use of persistent identifiers varies according to
their purpose. Fifty-two percent of our respondents indicated they
were concerned about Web cookies, and another 12% said they were
uncertain about what a cookie is. Of those who knew what cookies were,
56% said they had changed their cookie settings to something other
than accepting all cookies without warning. However, 78% of
respondents said they would definitely or probably agree to Web sites
using persistent identifiers (possibly implemented using cookies) to
provide a customized service. Fewer (60%) would agree to the use of
such an identifier to provide customized advertising, and fewer still
(44%) would agree to using the identifier to provide customized
advertising across many Web sites.

Internet users dislike automatic data transfer. While our respondents
said they are interested in tools that make using the Web more
convenient, most do not want these tools to transfer information about
them to Web sites automatically. When asked about several possible
browser features that would make it easier to provide information to
Web sites, 86% of respondents reported no interest in features that
would automatically transfer their data to Web sites without any user

Internet users dislike unsolicited communications. Respondents
indicated a strong desire to avoid unsolicited communications
resulting from providing information to Web sites. For example, 61% of
respondents who said they would be willing to provide their name and
postal mail address to a site in order to receive free pamphlets and
coupons said they would be less likely to provide the information if
it would be shared with other companies and used to send them
additional marketing materials.

A joint program of privacy policies and privacy seals seemingly
provides a comparable level of user confidence as that provided by
privacy laws. We described a scenario in which a Web site with
interesting information related to a favorite hobby asks for a
visitor's name and postal address in order to provide free pamphlets
and coupons. Of the respondents who were unsure or said they would not
provide the requested information:

- 48% said they would be more likely to provide it if there was a law
that prevented the site from using the information for any purpose
other than processing the request, 

- 28% said they would be more likely to provide it if the site had a
privacy policy, 

- and 58% said they would be more likely to provide it if the site had
both a privacy policy and a seal of approval from a well-known
organization such as the Better Business Bureau or the AAA. 

On the other hand, when we asked respondents about online privacy seal
programs without mentioning any specific brand names, their responses
suggest that they do not yet understand how Internet seal programs

We are continuing to analyze our survey data and plan to collect more
data to further explore these and other issues. We expect to provide
more detailed analyses in future reports. 


Finally, we believe that a few technical and policy implications can
be drawn from our work. As the software engineering community attempts
to implement the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) and similar
privacy protocols, one of the major issues will be designing suitable
user interfaces for these systems. Such systems need to inform users
when user privacy might be at risk. However, not only must a user
interface present an extremely complex information and decision space,
it must do so seamlessly and unobtrusively (Ackerman and Cranor
1999). Our results suggest that for users who either have strong
feelings about privacy or who are marginally concerned about privacy,
very simple interfaces would likely be useful and usable. However, for
the majority of users who take a pragmatic approach to privacy issues,
it seems likely that a variety of mechanisms will be needed. 

While the vast majority of our respondents were concerned about
privacy (only 13% said they were "not very" or "not at all" concerned
about privacy threats), their reactions to scenarios involving online
data collection were extremely varied. Some respondents reported that
they would rarely be willing to provide personal data online, others
showed some willingness to provide data depending on the situation,
and others were quite willing to provide data -- regardless of whether
or not they reported a high level of concern about privacy. Thus it
seems unlikely that a one-size-fits-all approach to online privacy is
likely to succeed. 

Lorrie Faith Cranor <lorrie@research.att.com>
AT&T Labs-Research, Shannon Laboratory 
180 Park Ave. Room A241, Florham Park, NJ 07932 
Phone: 973-360-8607  FAX: 973-360-8970

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