Mon, Jun 08, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Sharing data, but not happily

A new report finds that consumers dislike data-mining, but feel powerless to stop it

By Natasha Singer  /  NY Times News Service

An exhibitor shows a smart city data mining cloud platform at a tech expo last month in Beijing, China. Consumers have become increasingly concerned how companies collect and use their personal data.

Photo: AFP

Should consumers be able to control how companies collect and use their personal data?

At a dinner honoring privacy advocates this week in Washington, Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, gave a speech in which he endorsed this simple idea. Yet his argument leveled a direct challenge to the premise behind much of the Internet industry — the proposition that people blithely cede their digital bread crumbs to companies in exchange for free or reduced-priced services subsidized by advertising.

“You might like these so-called free services,” Cook said. “But we don’t think they’re worth having your e-mail or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose.”

Now a study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania has come to a similar conclusion: Many Americans do not think the trade-off of their data for personalized services, giveaways or discounts is a fair deal either. The findings are likely to fuel the debate among tech executives and federal regulators over whether companies should give consumers control over the information collected about them.


In the survey, 55 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that “it’s OK if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.”

About seven in 10 people also disagreed that it was fair for a store to monitor their online activities in exchange for free Wi-Fi while at the store. And 91 percent of respondents disagreed that it was fair for companies to collect information about them without their knowledge in exchange for a discount.

“Companies are saying that people give up their data because they understand they are getting something for those data,” said Joseph Turow, a professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and the lead author of the study. “But what is really going on is a sense of resignation. Americans feel that they have no control over what companies do with their information or how they collect it.”


The report on consumers’ attitudes to commercial surveillance comes at a pivotal moment for online marketers and advertisers. Companies are scrambling to develop new techniques to influence people who increasingly use mobile devices to shop, bank and socialize. Yet, even as millions of people embrace these data-driven services, many are mistrustful of the kinds of inferences companies might make based on information gathered about them.

Some marketing companies, for instance, segment individuals into clusters like “low-income elders” or “small town, shallow pockets” or categorize them by waistband size.

The potential risk of inferior treatment is one reason an increasing number of Internet users are downloading Ghostery, a free plug-in that allows consumers to see and control online tracking by data brokers, advertising networks and other third parties.

Consumers will share information with sites they trust because they want to get personalized ads and content, said Scott Meyer, Ghostery’s chief executive. “But they will turn off the tracking technology if they are looking up painkillers for their mother because they don’t want the Internet to think they are addicted to opiates.”

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