The Lares Institute is focused on helping companies use information in a responsible way, and a core component of that effort is helping companies better understand what consumers think about information and its role in society. In 2011, the Lares Institute released “The Demographics of Privacy—A Blueprint for Understanding Consumer Perceptions and Behavior.” This white paper build upon the framework first proposed in “Privacy 3.0—The Principle of Proportionality,” as well as “The Federal Trade Commission and Privacy: Defining Enforcement and Encouraging the Adoption of Best Practices.”
These works focus on incorporating consumer views regarding data sensitivity into privacy so that companies and regulators are focused on addressing the issues that consumers are concerned about. But while these works offered the beginning of the framework, they did not offer concrete data regarding what consumers actually thought regarding specific data elements. Earlier this year, the FTC released its long-awaited report on privacy frameworks, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Business and Policymakers (March 2012),” in which data sensitivity, and proportional protections were repeatedly discussed in the context of the proposed framework. In short, while there was much discussion regarding consumer views regarding data sensitivity, the Commission noted that these issues were at times, in the “eye of the beholder”, and noted there could be disagreement regarding what data was considered to be sensitive.
The Lares Institute and APCO Worldwide have just released a landmark study that attempts to provide concrete data to help define this important issue—defining what consumers think about data sensitivity. The study, “The Eye of the Beholder: Operationalizing Privacy by Design Through the Power of Consumer Choice,” offers businesses and regulators their first view of this issue based upon the actual views of consumers. Among the study’s key conclusions are:
• The current-day model for privacy can only be effective if it is based in an examination of data sensitivity (what individuals and societies think about privacy)
• An analysis of data sensitivity is critical to inform proportional protections
• Consistent with what privacy commentators have suggested, consumers rank social security numbers, passwords, personal identification numbers, credit card account numbers and financial information among the most sensitive data elements
• However, consumers did not rank as highly sensitive other information that commentators typically focus on such as geolocation, sexual orientation, or religious background
• The results indicate that Baby Boomers (46-65-year-olds) are the most privacy-sensitive age cohort and may warrant additional consideration as policies are developed
A link to the press release is located here, as is a link to the study.