Image: iStockphoto/marchmeena29

There’s an old expression regarding social media usage that goes something like this: “If the service is free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” Over the years, this has proven true as tech giants like Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, and many others come under increased scrutiny for how they use, repurpose, package, and sell their customer’s data.

According to a Ponemon Institute study sponsored by ID Experts, a provider of identity protection and data breach services, consumers have taken notice. The study, Privacy and Security in a Digital World: A Study of Consumers in the United States, found that, on a scale of 1 to 10, 86% of adults said they are “very concerned” about how Facebook and Google use their personal information.” A majority, 69%, said they are “very concerned” about their privacy when using devices such as smartwatches, smartphones, tracking devices, smart speakers, tablets, PCs, and Macs. A similar number, 66%, said they are “very concerned” when shopping online or using online services.

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“Research points to consumers’ growing awareness and the concern they feel about their digital privacy, combined with a sense of helplessness to do anything to protect themselves online,” said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute. “The findings also highlight an increasing demand for government and industry regulation to take responsibility for the privacy gap facing consumers today.”

Most consumers (74%) feel they have little control over how their personal data is used. Only 40% believe the industry can self-regulate when it comes to privacy issues. Even so, most people (81%) said they do not try to limit how much personal information they share with online services and platforms.

“Because so few feel like they have control of how their data is being used they see an even greater need for government regulation to step in and hold technology companies accountable,” said Ponemon. “Most consumers do not believe big tech companies alone will protect their privacy rights through self-regulation.”

Over the last three years, privacy concerns have increased. But, even as consumers become more knowledgeable about privacy issues, they are spending more time on social media sites (56%) and smartphones, (48%). Their primary privacy concerns center on losing civil liberties and having their identity information stolen and sold. Only 25% said they were bothered by potential marketing abuses.

“This research illuminates the gaping chasm between the privacy that consumers wish to have online and the ugly reality of how their personal data is acquired, aggregated, and misused by companies that they no longer trust,” said Tom Kelly, president and CEO of ID Experts. “The challenge that we as the privacy community have today is to change this trajectory by empowering consumers to take back control of their lost digital privacy.”

The online sites consumers trust least are social media (61%), shopping (52%), healthcare/medical (36%), gaming (30%), and ride sharing (29%). Fitness trackers, food delivery, airlines and hotels, movies and cable TV, all came in under 25%. Banking and music sites received the best scores with just 12% of respondents expressing concern.

“As consumers’ lives increasingly move online, many realize the risk it poses to their privacy but don’t know or don’t take the proper steps to protect their right to privacy,” said Ponemon.

To improve privacy, most respondents (70%) want to opt-in, not -out, before sites that collect their information share it with, or sell it to, third parties. This desire also extends to how advertisers use their information to target ads. Most (73%) consumers want to be able to opt-out of topic-specific ads at any time; 68% do not want to see ads based on their conversations and messaging; 64% want advertisers to stop profiling them; and 62% want these protections on all the devices they use.

To protect privacy and security the report recommends:

  • Use unique passwords for each new account

  • Do not use the same email address for all online platforms

  • Customize your privacy settings

  • Think twice before consenting to sell data

  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) to secure online connections

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