Trends on Tuesday: Half of Online Americans Don’t Know What a Privacy Policy Is

Dec 23, 2014

Federal agencies are required by law see the list of applicable ones here to use privacy policies on their digital properties that explain how they use the data they collect about users and visitors. This ensures that these users and visitors know what the government is doing with their data.

Word cloud about online privacy


The problem, according to Pew Research, is that half of these users don’t know what a privacy policy is.

“When Pew Research Center asked about this [a privacy policy] on a recent survey measuring public knowledge of technology and the Web, we found that it was one that many Americans answered incorrectly. Our true/false statement question asked, “When a company posts a privacy policy, it ensures that the company keeps confidential all the information it collects on users.” Some 52% of Internet users believe—incorrectly—that this statement is true, and that privacy policies actually ensure the confidentiality of their personal information.”

In the article, researcher Joseph Turow states there are several issues contributing to confusion over privacy policies:

  • assumptions users make about what it means to have a privacy policy in the first place (i.e., it means they keep info private),
  • privacy policies that are often difficult to interpret,
  • users not fully understanding the scope of the data that is being collected on them.

Privacy Impact Assessments & the Internet of Things

Cheryl Hackley from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wrote about the confusion around Privacy Impact Assessment policies in her role as social media lead there and noted that making these policies as clear is possible is a helpful thing government agencies can do.

A concern the Pew article raises is that with the influx of more mobile devices and Internet of Things technologies that rely on data, organizations will be using even more information about users, which have bigger implications for privacy. Recently, Jordan Higgins, from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), wrote a must-read on the impacts of security and privacy when it comes to the Internet of Things. The MobileGov Community of Practice also noted privacy and identify management as a significant challenge for mobile implementation during the Making MobileGov Project four years ago.

How should government handle digital privacy issues moving forward? This would be a great topic to recommend for our crowdsourced 2015 DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit programming!