Posted in Security

The problem with privacy: ideas and real life behavior don’t match

Scientists have researched for years the mismatch of results originating from interviews and surveys, and the actual behavior of people. Something tends to be wrong with the results, although respondents feel they have given accurate answers. This phenomenon is surprisingly evident with cyber related matters such as privacy and security.

Exploding Topics, a market research consultancy, conducted an insightful survey on the awareness of internet users about data collection and trading of big tech corporations. 1617 US-based participants contributed to the survey. The consultancy highlights the key results of the survey as follows:

  • 47.9% of survey respondents would consider selling their personal data for profit.
  • 19.5% don’t read the full terms and conditions before they agree to them. 28.2% say they read the terms sometimes, but 52.3% claim they always read the terms and conditions.
  • Microsoft has the longest privacy policy documents containing an average of 11,806 words per policy, taking 59 minutes on average to read. [A possible conclusion: More than half of people spend an hour to read the latest Microsoft privacy policy before agreeing to the Skype, Teams, Windows, Office 365, or to another Microsoft service?]
  • Over 50% of people trust that Apple does the right thing with their data. Apple is by far the most trusted of all big tech companies among participants.

Let’s examine a few other valuable findings of the survey.

People believe they have been hacked.

  • 52.1% said yes to “Has your data ever been hacked?”. This would mean that half of US population (166 million) would have been hacked. Although cybercriminals have been busy lately, and they have automated tools they can apply to their job, breaking into 166 million computers or phones in the US alone would be quite a feat. Of course, people may have very different understanding of what a hack is, and it is reflected in the answers.

Abundant data collection is firmly opposed.

  • 76.1% said they would stop using a particular service if they found out the service was collecting too much personal data. This brings us to the fundamental question: Why people say one thing in an interview or survey, but do another thing in their real lives?
  • Let’s take Facebook as an example. During the last six years or so, a scandal after scandal has been unveiled about Facebook’s shady personal data collection and behavior tracking practices. The latest scandal from September 2022 indicates that nothing has changed: Facebook and Instagram track Apple iPhone users even when they have forbidden it in the phone settings.

Facebook is one of the least trusted companies.

  • Big tech corporations are not trustworthy. Apple is the only company people trust according to the survey. 51.3% of people let Apple collect their personal data, but only 10% trust Microsoft, ranked second, to do the the same. Facebook is among the five least trusted companies: only 1.1% trust their personal data to Mark Zuckerberg’s business empire.
  • Again, there is a mismatch between what people say and what they really do. Only one person out of hundred people trusts Facebook. Yet, billions of people (almost 3 billion active users in July 2022) continuously feed more and more personal data into Facebook’s databases.

People don’t want their search terms and messages to be tracked.

  • 45.5% of survey respondents didn’t want their online search terms to be collated by search engines. 24.6% didn’t want their messages to be collated.
  • Google Search is used by majority of people who are online. Its market share varies from 80% to 95% depending on the market. So, people don’t want their searches to be recorded, but they still access Google Search that is renowned for its ability to predict what people want because Google Search has recorded their search history as long as they have used the search engine.
  • Google Gmail is used by 45% of people who have an email account. From the beginning, Google has openly stated that Gmail collects personal data from the email messages that go through the system. If people are concerned about the privacy of their messages why do they use Gmail?

Cybersecurity and privacy tend to be invisible concepts for internet users until a disaster strikes. “I have nothing to hide” or “Who would want to hack my computer” is a common attitude as long as nothing worrying happens. The survey tells that the attitude is changing, but it isn’t reflected to daily life and behavior in cyberspace.

Scientists are aware of the mismatch between survey answers and actual behavior. For instance, a research paper Lies, Damned Lies, and Survey Self-Reports? Identity as a Cause of Measurement Bias summarizes the problem “Direct measures of normative behavior, whether interviewer- or self-administered, can yield highly biased estimates. In the present study and elsewhere, high rates of bias emerge in survey estimates of normative behaviors like voting, attending religious services, and engaging in physical exercise.”

In other words, people may answer questions based on what they believe is the correct or generally approved answer, but their behavior doesn’t always match the answer.

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