Monday, October 28, 2013

Is "Online Privacy" the Ultimate Oxymoron?

The efficiency, global reach, and seemingly limitless information capacity of the internet is what makes it attractive to the great majority of people worldwide.  You can find a pizza place in Hoboken (quite a few of them in fact), the answer to that tough take-home quiz, the schematics of your dishwasher model's inner workings, and that grade school friend who you were too shy to approach "back in the day."

But, with all of its benefits, the internet also offers a number of drawbacks that have not gone unnoticed by industry managers, government officials, and consumer advocates.  Ironically, with its ability to make work more efficient, internet usage in businesses has often been blamed for a decrease in productivity.  Although this has been a challenge for industry, a larger issue has been developing over the past decade, that of the internet's role in the loss of personal privacy.

Personal Privacy Versus Corporate Productivity

One of the most significant benefits of the internet has been its ability to accumulate data at a speed much greater than that of any other communication medium.  From the initial use of email surveys, to website-based requests and provision of personal information, to the current use of click-stream monitoring to understand more specific consumer behavior, the online world has been a boon to market segmentation, target marketing, and now behavioral advertising.  But many have seen this rapid increase in consumer data gathering (with databases doubling every 1.2 years) as an assault on consumer privacy online.  As a result, consumer advocates and government entities have pushed back, even moving industry organizations to take privacy self-regulation more seriously.

We're Protected, Right?
With all of the discussion of online privacy and legislation such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), many web users may feel that their privacy is protected.  However, many complain that online privacy is at an all-time low.  For example, a Stanford University study found that most websites leak consumers' personal information to third parties, in spite of claims in their privacy policies that they will refrain from doing so.

Although most web users have the ability to limit some tracking of their behavior, as well as the use of tracked behavior to be used in determining which advertisements they receive, the vast majority of consumers fail to limit their own privacy invasion.  This may be due to a lack of knowledge regarding the ability to limit tracking or perhaps a desire to receive more targeted advertising that is likely to be appealing to that consumer's interests.  Furthermore, consumers are becoming less and less aware of company privacy policy changes, regardless of how large they may be (see article about Microsoft's uneventful changes here).

Regardless of the reasons, the substantial number of consumers who have voiced concerns over privacy issues has motivated Congress to consider various protections to allow consumers to opt out of online tracking.  However, the ability of technology to outpace legislation suggests that individual behavior may be the best way to protect one's privacy.  Currently, most consumers willingly provide vast amounts of information to potential advertisers via website registrations, online purchases, and open discussions on blogs and social networking sites.  Large amounts of information are even provided by children who fall under the protection of COPPA, much to the delight of online businesses that use that data to market a myriad of new products and services.

So the question remains, is "online privacy" even possible, or is the cost of online privacy too much of a burden for consumers, and perhaps even industry, to bear?  Indeed, is it even possible to experience the richness of the online world and still retain one's privacy?

Perhaps "Online" and "Privacy" may not be a sensible combination after all?

Be sensible,
A few articles to read...

Bazelon, Emily (2011), “Why Facebook Is After Your Kids,” The New York Times, (October 12), <>.

Brave, Scott (2012), “Making Sense of Online Personalization and Privacy,” Forbes (October 22),
Gruenwald, Juliana (2011), “Privacy Groups Hoping Stanford Study Prompts Action,” Nextgov: Technology and the Business of Government, (October 12), <>.

Wyatt, Edward and Nick Wingfield (2012), “As Microsoft Shifts Its Privacy Rules, an Uproar Is Absent,” New York Times (October 19),


  1. Great blog and topic, Professor! The answer to your question is, yes! Privacy within the internet is undoubtedly an oxymoron. You made a great point when stating that technology is outpacing legislation. It's nearly impossible for the government to keep up with the internet when it is constantly evolving and advancing. Of course, privacy, financially (checking bank accounts, for example), is important; but, the internet is the biggest source of communication so its almost comical to see people so upset over privacy on SOCIAL media.

  2. I disagree that privacy within the internet is an oxymoron but I do agree that for the time being it is difficult to expect the same rights on the internet that we expect on a day to day basis in real life.

    The best example I have to back up this statement is an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" that I saw in which one of the main characters has his items stolen from a virtual game on the internet. The police come and much to Sheldon's dismay, there is nothing that they can do because there are no jurisdictions on the internet and the stolen virtual items cannot physically be found and returned to him.

    How can we expect the same laws to be applied to the internet with regards to virtual items? Then extend this to privacy on an item that you are willingly posting on the internet for the world to see. Interesting indeed.

  3. Professor I really like the blog of the week because I feel very passionate and strong about this topic. I don't think that online privacy is an oxymoron by no means. I do think that depending on what sites we visit privacy can be more or less controlled. I think that sites like social media are opening up doors of opportunity for privacy to be compromised but my way of thinking is that if you like those sites you know the risk you are running. On the contrary financial sites and government sites etc are sites that are more protected and regulated so I personally feel that my privacy is being protected there maybe not 100% because I as a typical consumer cant see what is going on behind the scenes but overall feel very confident that my privacy is being taken care of. Great topic to blog about Im sure we will have many many different points of view.

  4. This is a very interesting topic because it affects all of us at some point. From downloading a song illegally to having our information access by hackers and thieves, it has become extremely hard to keep our personal life personal.
    At the end of the day, there are things we can do in order to keep some aspects of our lives private but the truth is that some other aspects are completely out of our control, and we depend on the few rules and regulations that can apply.

  5. I'm afraid I'll have to say yes to the fact that online privacy is an oxymoron. As I described in my blog, I believe that everything we do and share online is being track and collected. No matter if we can opt out of some sharing in certain websites, there are still other websites and sites that gather and analyze your clicks and online behavior.
    It's scary but true, I don't believe in online privacy; even now that technology is being created to increase the data gathering such us the Google Glasses, yes it is supposed to be an innovation for technology addicts, but in my opinion it's another way of gathering information and even tracking your life outside computers or cell phones.
    My blog:
    Florencia Pendola

  6. I believe online privacy is a topic almost nobody has a lot of knowledge on. We can try to research and get as much as possible but at the end of the day things are being done without users' consent. I was speaking to a good friend about this topic and he mentioned he did not care if his info was being viewed by advertisement companies or the government. He went on by saying, "I will only get more options when it comes the ads, regarding the government... well I have not done anything wrong. He who owes nothing, has nothing to fear". Its very disappointing to witness how many just give up to their privacy. I blame it on the lack of knowledge most of us have regarding the topic.

  7. I think it has gotten to a point that most online users know that their information is being used to some degree by third-parties. I think the thing that most people don't know is that they can remove some targeting features within their account settings.

    I usually here a lot of complaints from friends saying that when they online shop the advertisements keep following them around wherever they go online (remarketing). And none of them know that they can simply clear their cache or set privacy features in their browser or gmail account.

  8. Yes I agree! We are never truly safe. Online communication should be treated originally from the beginning as "compromised" communication. The information can be intercepted from computer to computer. Your computer might be infected before even sending it to the recipient. The recipients computer might be infected, even if yours is not, compromising the data. You can encrypt it so even if someone dose finds it they can't open it. That is not the case if there is a key logger installed on anyone’s computer, compromising the security key.

    In essence "big brother" is the only sibling you have when dealing with computers and internet.

  9. As technology increases and the number of people on the internet grows with it, it is nearly impossible to NOT leave a virtual stamp anymore. Whenever we register for anything may it be an email, a blogging website, pandora, everything asks for our name, age, gender, locations, various things to categorize us. I agree with this blog in the sense that online privacy is an oxymoron.

    One of the biggest examples of this was when Facebook starting using a facial recognition technology to be able to predict if you are in a picture and suggesting to tag you. This is why I know of people who do not upload any pictures of their children on Facebook. They do not want their children to be added to that software and be easily recognizable.

    Will Facebook eventually give access to the government in the event they are searching for someone? All they need to do is access their facial recognition software and they can find that person in pictures from OTHER people and pinpoint their associates, where they could be, ect.

    With the increase of data collecting, target marketing, and things of that nature, we will truly have our privacy online anymore. We just have to decide which is more important, being able to be online or our privacy? This was a great read!

  10. This blog posting was such a joy to read. It inspired me to look further into the Stanford experiment and to learn more about the COPPA. In response to your questions that you closed with. I think that it is impossible to remain on the internet but still keep your information hidden. The internet has grown too quickly for its own good, and with so many people plugged in, there is no way to control what someone can see and what someone cannot. Your information, wether you put it in willingly or not, is available for all who can hack in or to the highest bidder. This is a scary thought, particularly because this issue has become a scandal in todays world, going as far as to information regarding politics.

  11. I truly believe that there is not such a thing as “online privacy;” moreover I believe there is not such a thing as privacy nowadays. If you choose to have a phone, bank account, or just a social security number you are been track, your behavior is being track, and we are being put into categories. Such tracking is later put into patterns that are sold to or share with third parties. We don't have much of a choose, unless one is willing to live with the Amish. As a advertising student, I know how we take advantage of peoples ignorance. Point that you bring here. I hope that is the close future more and more people get informs about ways to minimize the amount of personal information that gets put on the internet.

    In my blog you will find my point of view on "online privacy" in the fashion industry.

  12. In my opinion I think it will be really hard if not impossible to have privacy in the internet. Unfortunately we only see the some sides of this issues but we don not see how the government may use this, maybe this is how they want the internet to be so they can have more control of what the people do or don't. In some cases this is good because it helps sometimes to stop criminals or prevent terrible incidents. That's for one thing, but honestly the whole privacy thing is so broad just like the web is. For example all the privacy agreements that you have to agree to are so long and lets be honest no one reads what they are agreeing to, this is something that should be addressed at least t start somewhere.

  13. I had always read on the news about companies such as Facebook or Google, etc. struggling with their privacy policies. The blog definitely had me thinking that it is unlikely that privacy and online interaction can truly and perfectly co-exist. That said, there is A degree (however small) degree of privacy on the internet where companies are legally not allowed to share certain sensitive information. Also, there is the matter of IP addresses, which track any computer's activities online back to the computer and its user and even location when accessed to the internet! It's truly a scary thought to think that virtually everything we do online can be metadata for someone's use, that our actions can be tracked and traceable, etc.

  14. I found your choice of topic this week to be very interesting because there is a lack of privacy online and it is an issue that should be addressed. I think your research provided from Stanford University about most websites leaking consumer’s personal information to be an unfortunate event that deserves some type of action to lessen the amount of leaks. You also mentioned advertising that is targeted towards specific personal interests, and I have noticed during my online experiences that the advertisements have changed to topics of non-interest to mostly all areas that do interest me. I think a lack of knowledge of the changes of online usage is a big reason this occurs since in the past it did not occur.

  15. I believe that everyone should be less afraid as to the information corporations and the government collects about you and more afraid about that they post themselves. Most of the same people who feel their privacy is violated post every detail of their life through social media. I part from the point that If you want something to remain secret you should keep it to yourself. The real threat are hackers who might steal your identity or financial information and wreak havoc