Online Privacy Tools Found Difficult To Use

An academic study found that various tools designed to provide users with online privacy protections, including Microsoft's, were too difficult to use.

The study found "serious usability flaws" in the nine tools tested: three opt-out tools, two built-in browser settings, and four blocking tools. Specifically, the tools were too complicated to use by the by 45 non-technical participants who were not knowledgeable about privacy tools.

"None of the nine tools we tested empowered study participants to effectively control tracking and behavioral advertising according to their personal preferences," the report states. "Users tend to be unfamiliar with most advertising companies, and therefore are unable to make meaningful choices.... They often erroneously concluded the tool they were using was blocking OBA [online behavioral advertising] when they had not properly configured it to do so."

The study found that users were unable to distinguish between trackers, that the trackers had inappropriate default settings for users interested in protecting their privacy, and that tools were ineffective at communicating their purpose and guiding users to properly configure them. The report also cites insufficient feedback given to users: Participants reported being unsure of what it meant to be opted out and how they could tell whether opt-out was working. Participants also had difficulty determining when the tool they were using caused parts of websites to stop working and reported that most of the tools had "major usability flaws" with confusing interfaces.  

"On the usability front it is pretty bad news," said study coordinator and professor at the university's Computer Science and Engineering & Public Policy Lorrie Faith Cranor in a Wall Street Journal blog entry dated Oct. 31. "I was actually somewhat surprised about how difficult it was for everybody…. Some tools are difficult even for experts to use."

The study evaluated DAA Consumer Choice from the Digital Advertising Alliance; Global Opt-Out and Ghostery 2.5.3, both from Evidon; Privacy Choice's PrivacyMark; TACO 4.0 from Abine; Adblock Plus 1.3.9; Mozilla Firefox 5's privacy panel; and Microsoft IE9's privacy controls and Tracking Protection mechanism.

Federal and state governments as well as consumers have expressed concerns over Internet privacy. A  survey by the Consumers Union submitted to Congress found that two-thirds of consumers want the government to protect their privacy on the Internet, and more than 80 percent want to opt out of tracking.

The survey was part of testimony on Internet privacy and security in a June 29 hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The committee heard testimony regarding three bills: the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 (S. 913), the Commercial Bill of Rights Act of 2011 (S.799), and the Data Security and Breach Notification Act (S. 1207).

At the same time, governments worldwide are stepping up requests for user identity information from Google, with the company complying with 93 percent of U.S. government requests for user data, GCN reported Oct. 26.

Dorothy Chou, a Google senior policy analyst, said in a blog entry that the level of detail provided by the company highlights the need to modernize laws such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, written 25 years ago. 


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