Web Sites Face User Backlash Over Personal Data

Many people are uncomfortable with Web sites customizing content to people’s personal profiles, according to a new survey.

“There’s a creepy factor and a fear of the unknown that people don’t want to deal with,” said Michelle Warren, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario.

“The notion that there’s a privacy issue in someone’s e-mail account hits a little too close to home for some,” she added.

Nearly 60 percent of 2,513 people in the United States questioned in a Harris Interactive poll said they were uneasy when Web sites use information about personal online activity to tailor advertisements or content.

The findings may pave the way for Web giants to offer users more tangible benefits in exchange for lost privacy, such as discounts on movies, music and electronics, said Dr. Alan Westin, of Columbia University in New York, who helped design the poll.

“Free search engines or social networking sites are encoded on Web user’s DNA, and one way to defend behavioral marketing is to sweeten its benefits to users,” Westin said in an interview.

While privacy boundaries aren’t forcing Web users to boycott popular Web applications just yet, that may change as users begin to understand the extent to which their personal details are being used.

“What happens is people suddenly realize they’ve put out enough personal information to get served with a targeted advertisement, and the Web makes the transition from convenience to creepiness,” said Colin McKay, of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in Ottawa.

The survey showed that younger users are more comfortable with the customized Web content, with people ages 18–43 leading the pack.

As a whole, Web users’ comfort was increased only slightly when asked to consider potential safeguards that would improve Web privacy policies and procedures.

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