Online Privacy - Consumer Education is Missing

During 2007-2008 I wrote a lot about online privacy on this blog. Most of the online privacy discussion at that time revolved around online targeting based on tracking users online behaviors also knows as behavioral targeting.

It amazes my how many privacy advocates and senators are concerned about anonymous online tracking and behaviorally targeted ads based on peoples click behavior when the consumers are voluntarily giving all the private information on social media sites.

Last week Google Analytics announced a plug-in that will let users opt-out of Google Analytics. web analytics tracking detrimental to visitors' privacy? Google Analytics collects click stream data anonymously. It does not know who you are, it identifies you via a cookie and tracks what pages were viewed by that cookie, what buttons were clicked by cookie etc. This data is then used by individual sites using the tool (Google Analytics) to understand the behavior of their visitors and optimize the experience both for the user and their business. Where is the privacy threat in all this?

Proliferation of the services like Facebook, Twitter and location based services like Gowalla and Foursquare have enabled people to share their personal information with their "friends". Users of these services are willingly giving a lot of personal information. Information, that can be used by others ("friends"), in so many harmful ways. But is general consumer aware of such harms? Why isn't that the most important issue?

The real threat to privacy is the lack of education about the online information sharing. We are the ones who are voluntarily revealing a ton of information, which is far more harmful than anonymous click stream behavior. Using Facebook, twitter and Foursquare you can pretty much know what a person likes, dislikes, who the family members are, what time they leave the house, what time they arrive at work, where do they spend their day, afternoon, evening, what they wear, etc. That to me should be more concerning than anonymous web analytics tracking and the ads that are targeted based on a users click behavior.

Most of the consumers don't even know how all the little personal information they are leaving on social media sites could harm them. I have not seen any public service ads warning me about the downside of using such services. Shouldn't there be those ads warning people, both offline and online?

In my opinion governmental agencies, privacy advocates and marketers should focus their attention on consumer education. Educate them about various tracking methods, implications of information sharing on social media sites etc. No matter how strict the online tracking & targeting rules are you won't be able to avoid privacy leaks unless the end consumer is educated about the implications.

What do you think?

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