Modified August 28, 2015

Privacy and Consumers

There are a number of privacy issues related to how online companies collect, store, use and share personally identifiable information; and how consumers are informed about what is done with their information online.  Companies that operate a business or advertise online often want to know more about the behavior and demographics of their customers in order to more efficiently target information. Consumers may have a variety of concerns about the information they reveal online, including: identity theft, child safety online, the protection of one’s reputation, or a wish to avoid aggressive marketing pitches.  At some level, online privacy is a balance between the economic value of information – including its ability to provide a return to content creators so that the Internet continues to thrive – and the need to ensure that privacy is protected, so that fear of sharing information does not unduly limit the Internet as a place of creative and commercial exchange.


These issues often arise in discussions of privacy and consumers:
  • How consumers view and value different aspects of privacy –and whether there is a difference between what they say they value, and what they actually do in practice online.

  • How firms can set fair privacy policies and ensure consumers adequately understand their policies.

  • The call for Privacy By Design—the practice of embedding privacy protections into products and services at the design phase, rather than after an application is created.

  • Comparing privacy or “data protection” law in Europe and in the U.S. Unlike Europe, the U.S. has no comprehensive privacy law, so privacy online falls under a range of different, and overlapping, set of rules covering different types of information.

  • Online behavioral advertising (OBA), a process of profiling a user based on his or her online activities and using this profile, constructed over time; advertising networks show ads most likely to be of interest to each user, charging a premium price to do so.

  • Location-based tracking, especially regarding mobile devices, raises potential privacy dangers; and has opened up debates around tracking devices violating Fourth Amendment rights.
  • Facial-recognition technology and tools are capable of linking facial images to anonymous online data. The privacy implications of this work are significant; however, the biggest problem could be the inaccuracy of this and other data-mining techniques.
  • ‘Do Not Track’ (DNT) proposes to give web users the option to limit tracking by advertisers online.
  • Big Data uses data mining techniques to identify patterns in large datasets. Inherent in the details of the data sets are potential security breaches and privacy violations of the individuals associated with the de-identified data (i.e., search queries, credit card purchases, phone numbers dialed).
  • The intersection between privacy and other goals such as security, competition, or free speech.
  • The costs and benefits of privacy regulation. 
TAP Academics researching privacy policy issues involving consumers include:

M. Ryan Calo of the University of Washington advises companies on issues of data security, privacy, and telecommunications.

Lorrie Faith Cranor of Carnegie Mellon University has played a key role in building the usable privacy and security research community.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology writes about background checks, airport searches, and model privacy law.

"We want to provide a longitudinal and empirical basis for the description of privacy problems online. So as the FTC and Department of Commerce adopt approaches, we can say something about whether tracking is increasing or decreasing or shifting to other technologies.” Chris Hoofnagle quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Web Privacy Census Shows Tracking Pervasive,” June 26, 2012

Deirdre Mulligan, Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, research agenda focuses on information privacy and security.

Ira Rubenstein of the Information Law Institute at New York University focuses his research on Internet privacy, electronic surveillance law, online identity, Internet security and software liability.

Paul M. Schwartz of the UC Berkeley School of Law is an expert on international privacy norms and surveillance.

Dan J. Solove, George Washington University Law School, is an internationally-known expert in privacy law.

Peter Swire of the Georgia Institute of Technology is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of privacy, computer security, and the law of cyberspace.

Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania Law School writes about consumer’s views of privacy and advertising.

“We must move from the current marketing regime that uses information with abandon – where people’s data are being sliced and diced to create reputations for them that they don’t know about and might not agree with – to a regime that acts toward information with respect.” From testimony to the United States Senate, July 27, 2010

These sources are a good place to start in understanding privacy issues. Daniel Solove and Chris Hoofnagle support broad regulation of privacy in “A Model Regime of Privacy Protection.” Robert W. Hahn and Anne Layne-Farrar take a more skeptical view in “The Benefits and Costs of Online Privacy Legislation.” Peter Swire looks at privacy and competition policy in “Privacy and Antitrust.” In “Bridging the Gap Between Privacy and Design,” Deirdre Mulligan and Jennifer King call for embedding privacy protections into products and services at the design phase, known as Privacy By Design. Ira Rubinstein and Nathan Good also advocate Privacy By Design by offering the first comprehensive analysis of engineering and usability principles specifically relevant to privacy in “Privacy by Design: A Counterfactual Analysis of Google and Facebook Privacy Incidents.” In “Smart, Useful, Scary, Creepy: Perceptions of Online Behavioral Advertising,” Lorrie Faith Cranor, along with colleagues Blase Ur, Pedro G. Leon, Richard Shay, and Yang Wang, found that online users were unable to determine accurately what information is collected during Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA).

Media Contact

For media inquiries on a range of TAP topics, or for assistance facilitating interviews between reporters and academics, contact TAP@techpolicy.com.

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