Study Finds Online Privacy Tools Ineffective

By John Wagley

Growing concerns over online behavioral advertising have led some privacy advocates, regulators, and Members of Congress to call for a federally mandated do-not-track mechanism. The study results “suggest that the current approach of advertising industry self-regulation through opt-out mechanisms is fundamentally flawed,” it states.

Participants were more pleased with some tools than others. Users testing Mozilla Firefox's built-in tools were able to configure and accurately describe their privacy settings, for instance. One participant blocked both first- and third-party cookies, but added certain exceptions to permit Web sites she uses. Firefox "seems to be effective at limiting cookies," she was quited as saying in the study. "I like more stringent privacy settings, but I have some exceptions." Firefox's privacy settings are continuing to evolve, said Sid Stamm, Mozilla's privacy engineer, in an e-mail, to make them "easier for users to navigate and understand."

One way to make the tools more effective, according to Cranor, would be to provide users with one or just a few major decisions to make about how they are tracked online. One way to do this would be to group advertisers into certain broad categories, she said, depending on how they promise to safeguard users’ data. Consumers might be given the option to block certain types of data collection, such as when it’s used to deliver healthcare-related advertising, for example. One goal could be to separate out “things that are common on the Web and things that will cause privacy concerns.”

But Cranor said that making changes such as the above could face challenges. One is that advertising groups, technology companies, privacy advocates, and others may have difficulty coming up with precise and enforceable agreements over which types of tracking and advertising is appropriate under various circumstances.

Photo by Daniel Caw/Flickr



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