Australians value privacy – but are they willing to work to protect it?

You’d never know it from their profligate and often undiscerning consumption of social media, but a significant majority of punters are concerned about their online privacy and would prefer that their personal information were more carefully protected online – or not collected at all.

Such are the findings of a Queensland University studyof 1106 Australians, which has found consumers support increased transparency around the collection of personal information by online services, and stronger control of that data’s usage by the people it pertains to.

Fully three-quarters of respondents said they need to know more about how and why companies collet and use information about their users, and 69 per cent said they had refused to use an application or Web site because it collected too much personal information; 79 per cent simply refused to provide personal information at all.

“Online privacy policies tend to be vague about how information is being used and are often subject to change without warning,” said chief investigator Dr Mark Andrejevic from the university’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, who also heads the university’s Personal Information Project.

“Companies know more and more about us, but we know very little about what they’re doing with that information.”

Even when users did know what companies were doing with their personal information, many weren’t happy about it: 64 percent of respondents said they didn’t want tailored news stories, while 56 per cent disapprove of having advertisements targeted at them based on their personal information.

Despite their strong concerns over data privacy, however, users aren’t necessarily helping the situation: 60 per cent of respondents said they rarely or never read Web site privacy policies.

Other results suggest consumers aren’t aware of the privacy protections already available to consumers under the National Privacy Principles (NPP), which were created over a decade ago as part of a massive reworking of federal privacy law.

The NPP applies to private-sector Australian companies with a turnover of $3m or more, requiring them to manage customer data according to several of the same requirements to which consumers wished online companies would be held.

For example, Principle 1.3 mandates organisations to tell individuals its identity; the fact that individuals can access the information it collects; the purposes for which the information is collected; and more.

Respondents to the U of Q survey were also eager for companies to provide opt-in requirements (mandated by NPP 1 and 2) and to allow users to request their personal information be deleted (also arguably covered within NPP), which covers access to and correction of personal data.

Applying those requirements outside of Australia is another issue entirely, of course; privacy protections in other jurisdictions ranged from stricter to effectively non-existent. Despite these vagaries, however, the findings of the U of Q survey nonetheless provide a reminder for companies that being upfront about personal data collection is more likely to win consumer trust than not doing so.

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