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Study: Most Americans Ignorant of How Their Online Activities are Used

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Feb 7, 2023


Americans are unaware of how their personal details are used when interacting with the internet, a report by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found.

“High percentages of Americans don’t know, admit they don’t know, and believe they can’t do anything about basic practices and policies around companies’ use of people’s data,” the report stated at the outset.

Some examples included:

● Seventy-two percent it know, and 47 percent admit they don’t know, that, by law, a travel site such as Expedia or Orbitz that compares prices on different airlines does not have to include the lowest airline prices.

● Eighty-two percent don’t know, and 45 percent admit they don’t know, that the Federal Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) does not stop apps that provide information about health—such as exercise and fertility apps— from selling data collected about the app users to marketers.

● Sixty-three percent don’t know, and 38 percent admit they don’t know, that it is legal for an online store to charge people different prices depending on where they are located.

Eighty percent of the respondents said that have little control over how marketers can learn about them online, and 80 percent agree that what companies know about them from their online behaviors can harm them, the report found. Yet, in the 30th year of the commercial internet, “[h]igh levels of frustration, concern, and fear compound Americans’ confusion,” as evidenced by many of the findings.

The tracking of personal information on the web has been governed by a practice known as “informed consent,” which “is the voluntary agreement of an individual, or his or her authorized representative, who has the legal capacity to give consent, and who exercises free power of choice, without undue inducement or any other form of constraint or coercion to participate,” the report’s authors stated, quoting the late medical ethicist Robert J. Levine.  

Despite state and local laws, and federal regulations governing implicit and explicit permission from the individuals for the use of their personal information, “we find that informed consent at scale is a myth, and we urge policymakers to act with that in mind,” the authors stated.

Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a proposed rule on commercial surveillance (what the FTC calls online consumer tracking by companies) as it begins “to consider the potential need for rules and requirements regarding commercial surveillance and lax data security practices.”

“Studies have shown that most people do not generally understand the market for consumer data that operates beyond their monitors and displays,” the proposed rule stated.

“When faced with technologies that are increasingly critical for navigating modern life, users often lack a real set of alternatives and cannot reasonably forgo using these tools,” FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said in a speech last year.

The Annenberg survey tested people’s knowledge about how apps, websites and digital devices may amass and disclose personal information about people’s health, TV-viewing habits and doorbell camera videos. Seventy-seven percent of the participants got nine or fewer of the 17 true-or-false questions right. Only one person answered 16 of the questions correctly. No one answered all of them correctly. (The 17 questions can be found on page 10 of the report.)

The survey of 2,014 U.S. adults was conducted during fall 2022 for Penn’s Annenberg School by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. It was funded by an unsolicited, unrestricted grant from Facebook.

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