News

Internet Use Raises Privacy Concerns

Multimedia

Audio

The Internet brings us great websites full of information and entertainment, and email and chat have revolutionized communication.

But there's a dark side, too, as Internet users are increasingly concerned about how much of their personal information they're giving up in exchange. VOA's Art Chimes reports on the debate over Internet privacy.

As more and more people are realizing, we often reveal a lot of information about ourselves when we go online, information we may not realize we're disclosing, but which advertisers and commercial websites can use to sell us goods and services.

Sometimes the information is openly requested: you register on a website and you fill out a form. Next time you log into the site, you find ads for sporting equipment if you registered as a young man, or maybe cosmetics if you're a woman. Other times, websites and advertisers seem to magically know our interests.

They can do this because of cookies, little text files created on your computer that contain information left there by the websites you visit.

U.S. Internet service provider AOL explains the process with an online animation featuring a penguin who visits a fictional website called AnchovyGourmet. The company's chief privacy officer Jules Polonetsky explains what happens next.

"He's reading about anchovies. You sort-of see him getting this cookie that labels him an anchovy-liker. He then goes to PenguinTimes.com. He wants to know about global warming. He's worried; he's a penguin. Boom! There he gets the anchovy ad. The ad company reads the cookie to display an ad."

The advertiser may not know the penguin's name or address, just that he likes anchovies. The penguin animation invites viewers to check out AOL's privacy site, where visitors can read the company's privacy policy and learn more about how targeted, or behavioral advertising works.

Critics, however, point to surveys that indicate web users don't understand privacy policies, even when they are clearly stated.

One reason for that, says privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is that so-called privacy policies often aren't about preserving privacy at all.

"I don't think people are wrong to believe that [the existence of] a privacy policy means that their personal information won't be disclosed to others," Rotenberg says. "I think businesses are wrong to post a privacy policy and then believe that it provides a basis for them to disclose the information to others. That's where the problem arises."

The biggest Internet company of them all, Google, has a slogan, "don't be evil," but privacy advocates have criticized some of its policies, such as retaining some identifying information along with your search query. Google recently launched a YouTube channel with short videos explaining privacy policies in plain English.

"To improve our search results, as well as maintain security and prevent fraud, we remember some basic information about searches," explains a Google software engineer in one video. "So what information does Google collect? Let's find out, starting with a simple search...."

Representatives from Google and AOL, plus scholars and critics, gathered in Washington recently for a symposium on Internet privacy. It was sponsored by the communications schools of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.

Academic researchers are starting to take an interest in Internet privacy. At Northwestern University in Chicago, Dr. Eszter Hargittai has been surveying students about their understanding of key Internet concepts. You would think if anyone would be knowledgeable about the Internet and some of the pitfalls of surfing the web, it would be university students. But that's not what she found.

"Even among young people, there's a lot of lack of understanding," she said. "And age is a predictor of skills, so if you go into older populations it's only going to get worse. But this is already pretty bad, right?"

This is an issue that government regulators are also studying. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, whose members are all Bush appointees, has favored industry self-regulation, which is to say requiring disclosure but not banning the collection of personal data from visitors to websites. That's despite the fact that surveys indicate that Internet users don't want their personal information collected, as FTC commissioner Pamela Harbour acknowledged.

"Consumers are concerned about behavioral advertising even if they do not know the practice by name. Implicitly, we can also conclude that present consumer education efforts are lacking. Policies alone can not cure the overall discomfort that consumers express toward the practice," Harbour said.

The advance of technology is making the collection and analysis of personal information easier for advertisers and commercial websites. The process continues, even though consumers may not know their information is being collected, or that their web activities are being tracked by advertisers.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs