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section heading icon     attitudes

This page considers consumer attitudes to privacy - their own and that of other people - and what we know about those attitudes.

It covers -

section marker icon     introduction

Preceding pages of this guide (and the associated profile on the Australian privacy regime) have argued that terms such as 'privacy' and 'personal data protection' elicit a range of reactions, depending on who is being asked, when and in what circumstances.

It is common to encounter claims that individuals in western societies are deeply committed to privacy protection (or merely have a strong sense of their own privacy, something that is to be respected and even safeguarded). It is just as common to encounter claims that privacy is dead (and unmourned by most consumers), that people are largely indifferent to privacy abuses or that in a supposedly unprecedented borderless 'war on terror' they will readily abandon privacy in favour of strengthened security.

In practice there is considerable uncertainty about consumer attitudes, with questions about bias in particular data collections, difficulty in matching data between particular studies and problems in relating stated attitudes to actual behaviour.

section marker icon     the shape of attitudes

Overseas studies demonstrate that privacy is one of the major potholes in the information highway. Some show that consumers (individuals and businesses) refuse to interact with many sites that demand particular information. That is a problem, because the competitor may be just a few clicks away. Others show that users respond by supplying false information. Others fuel a growing demand for more comprehensive and more effective regulation.

Scott McNealey of Sun claims that privacy is already history: it is gone, so get over it. Emily Nussbaum, discussing generational divides, captured some attitudes among over-39s with the fictional quote

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.

Tom Harrisson and other animateurs of Mass Observation in UK during the 1930s noted that contrary to claims about British reticence, people were often eager to reveal intimate aspects of their lives. Solveig Singleton's Privacy as Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate Privacy in the Private Sector, a paper for the US Cato Institute, argues that there is "little to fear from private collection and transfer of consumer information".

That assertion is inconsistent with statements by industry leaders and with a history of government responses to bad practice.

It is clear that new technology, such as automated collection of data about online activity, large-scale data profiling and data trading, offers significant opportunities for privacy abuses. It also provides a major incentive, in an environment where the right information may be the crucial factor in a sale or an election. Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian's paper Privacy: The Key to Electronic Commerce and paper on Data Mining: Staking a Claim on Your Privacy illustrate those points.

More importantly, it is inconsistent with consumer and business perceptions that there are substantive concerns. Irrespective of whether those concerns are firmly based in reality - and documents highlighted in the following pages demonstrate that there are problems - the perceptions need to be addressed.

Consistent with comments earlier in this guide, there are substantial variations in community attitudes to health privacy within and between nations, reflecting factors such as

  • the personal experience of individuals and perceptions of powerlessness (including awareness of bad practice and understanding of network technologies)
  • the comprehensiveness of privacy legislation and efficacy of privacy codes
  • use of health data in employment, insurance, lending and other decisions
  • the shape of advocacy by particular organisations.

Disagreement is also apparent within the legal and academic communities, with Australian Mirko Bagaric for example asserting in 2007 that

privacy is a middle-class invention by people with nothing else to worry about. Normally they would have every right to live in their moral fog, but not when their confusion permeates the feeble minds of law-makers and puts the innocent at risk.

The right to privacy is the adult equivalent of Santa Claus and unicorns. No one has yet been able to identify where the right to privacy comes from and why we need it. In fact, the right to privacy is destructive of our wellbeing. It prevents us attaining things that really matter, such as safety and security and makes us fear one another.

A strong right to privacy is no more than a request for secrecy - refuge of the guilty, paranoid and misguided, none of whom should be heeded in sorting through the moral priorities of the community.

section marker icon     some highlights

Some sense of consumer attitudes can be gained by grazing various published reports, including those conducted on a commercial basis.

In the US for example EPIC notes the 2000 BusinessWeek/Harris Poll indicating that 86% of users want a web site to obtain opt-in consent before collecting user information. That figure is consistent with the 2000 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey indicating that 86% of respondents supported opt-in privacy policies. The BusinessWeek survey found that 57% of respondents favored laws to regulate how personal information is used, with only 15% supporting industry self-regulation. 75% characterised website privacy notices as "absolutely essential" or "very important."

A 2001 ASNE study found that 51% of US respondents were "very concerned" (30% were "somewhat concerned") that a business might violate their privacy, with 50% "very concerned" about violation by government. 52% reported that "very little" or "no confidence at all" that businesses use personal data exactly as promised. 70% had refused to supply data to a company because it was "too personal"; 62% had requested removal of names from marketing databases. A 2002 Harris Poll found that a majority of US consumers did not trust businesses to handle their personal data. 83% had requested expungement from mailing lists.

The 1993 Harris Equifax Health Information Privacy Survey noted earlier in this guide reported that in the US some

  • 85% believe that protecting the confidentiality of medical records is "absolutely essential" or "very important" in health care reform
  • 96% believe that federal legislation should designate all personal medical information as "sensitive" and impose penalties for unauthorized disclosure.
  • 60% believe that it is not acceptable for medical information about them to be provided, without their individual approval, by pharmacists to direct marketers who want to mail offers to new medications
  • 41% believe that medical claims submitted under an employer health plan may be seen by their employer and used to affect their job opportunities
  • 64% do not want medical researchers to use their records for studies, even if the individual is never identified personally, unless researchers first get the individual's consent
  • 75% worry (with 38% "very concerned") that medical information from a computerized national health information system will be used for many non-health purposes
  • 25% report that they or member of their family have personally paid for a medical test, treatment, or counseling rather than submit a bill or claim under a health care plan or program.

section marker icon     tests

One of the vehement participants in the Australian domain name industry blithely dismissed debate in 2006 about the Australia Card, claiming that  

what is really boring is the constant bleating about privacy as though it mattered and was of such importance that the average person in the street actually cares about it.

His assertion provoked the tart response -

Put your money where your mouth is.

Post your complete medical histories for yourself and your immediate family.

Also please post statements for both your savings and credit card accounts.

James Katz's 1996 paper on Understanding communication privacy: Unlisted telephone subscribers in the United States notes that in Japan and Europe there are few unlisted numbers compared to the US (where around 25% of numbers unlisted nationally and 33% in California are unlisted).

section marker icon     what information is available

In Australia readily available reports include

  • Research into Community attitudes towards Privacy in Australia, Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2004 | here
  • Privacy in Diverse Victoria: Research report into attitudes towards privacy in diverse communities, 2002 (PDF),
  • Community attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here
  • Business attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here
  • Government attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, 2001 | here

Salient overseas lists and studies include -

  • Alan Westin's Bibliography of Surveys of the U.S. Public, 1970-2003 (PDF), associated links and PANDAB inventory
  • the 2007 OCLC study by Cathy De Rosa, Joanne Cantrell & Andy Havens on Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World

section marker icon     selected critiques

Some critiques, of value both for identifying flaws in particular surveys and more broadly for making sense of the policy debate and particular agendas, are -

  • EPIC Privacy Polls & Surveys page (2006) | here
  • Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (2000) | here
  • Ponnurangam Kumaraguru & Lorrie Cranor's Privacy Indexes: A Survey of Westin's Studies (2005) | (PDF)
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute With a Grain of Salt: What Consumer Privacy Surveys Don't Tell Us paper (2001) by
    Issue Analysis Jim Harper & Solveig Singleton | here
  • CDT Privacy Surveys page (2000) | here

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version of October 2007
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics