Project Description

Comparing User Expectations of Privacy With Data Collection Practices of Websites

In this project we examined the common practices among website operators of collecting, sharing and analyzing data about their users. We attempted to identify practices which may be deceptive or potentially harmful to users’ privacy and we make recommendations for changes in industry practice or government regulations accordingly. We compared industry practices with users’ expectations of privacy, identified points of divergence, and developed solutions for them. To make this comparison we assembled a picture of practices and perceptions through data from several sources.

User Expectations

First, to assess users’ perceptions, expectations and knowledge, we gathered data from surveys of public opinions found in previous research done by various public policy and polling organizations. Next, we analyzed which practices upset them enough to file complaints with privacy watchdog organizations such as the FTC, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the California Office of Privacy Protection, and TRUSTe. Finally, we looked at popular media to get a sense of what is being discussed in stories about Internet privacy, what users are made aware of, and what they may not know about.

Website Practices

To get a corresponding understanding of website practices, we conducted our own survey of website privacy policies, identifying the types of data that sites collect about users, the purposes for which that data is used, and with whom that data is shared. From this general picture, we narrowed our focus to specific behaviors. We looked specifically at the use of third-party tracking beacons, which are usually excluded from the provisions laid out in a website’s privacy policy. We also investigated the practice of sharing data with “affiliates.”

From these various sources of data we identified points of conflict between the privacy expectations of Internet users and the actual practices of website operators. This website describes our key findings. For a full project description view full report.