Divorcees, Southerners Most Concerned About Web Privacy

90 percent of online adults worry about privacy online, study shows

With the steady drumbeat of privacy controversies over the past year, it’s not surprising that surveys indicate that consumers are concerned about the issue. But research released today (Feb. 13) by privacy management firm TRUSTe highlights just how far the privacy debate has permeated the national consciousness, and how that can end up hurting many Internet companies’ bottom line.

According to the the inaugural Consumer Confidence Edition, a quarterly survey of privacy concerns and sentiments conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of TRUSTe, a whopping 90 percent of adults say they worry about privacy online—with 46 percent of users indicating they are concerned “sometimes,” 21 percent "frequently" and 23 percent "always." Beyond that, the study found that 41 percent of online adults don’t trust most businesses with their personal information and 88 percent avoid doing business with companies they don’t trust—scary numbers for anyone making their living on the Internet.

"Consumers are really concerned,” said Chris Babel, CEO of TRUSTe. “But that being said, 60 percent of businesses are doing the right things to get people to feel confident in them.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that businesses can get complacent. “To the extent that consumers don’t feel confident, they don’t act,” he continued. “They don’t do what as a business you’re trying to get them to do.”

As privacy disputes continue to flare up (in the past few weeks alone, Google and social network Path have been at the center of such dustups), Babel said his company wants its new quarterly study to track the trajectory of consumer sentiment on privacy and its potential impact on business. “How does [sentiment] really turn into action? That’s where the rubber really meets the road,” he said.

Admittedly, convincing businesses that they need to pay attention to privacy is also how TRUSTe, which audits privacy policies and offers other privacy-related services, earns its keep. Still, its findings are mostly consistent with other independent research.

According to a USA Today/Gallop Poll last February, seven out of 10 Facebook members surveyed, and 52 percent of Google users, said they are “either somewhat” or “very concerned” about their privacy while using the two services. A survey conducted earlier this month by online survey platform Ask Your Target Market found that 82 percent of respondents said they consider online privacy very important.

That survey, however, indicated that consumer concern doesn’t always translate into consumer rebellion. Despite signaling their discomfort with privacy issues, just 17 percent of respondents said they always read privacy policies and 55 percent said they sometimes read privacy policies. And, generally speaking, consumer privacy sentiment can be a difficult thing to gauge because word choice and context can influence outcomes.

But, Babel said they considered those factors and were careful to keep their questions short and disconnected from any hot-button topics. “Our goal in doing this was to make it high level about privacy, generally to not bias any answers,” he said.

Aside from the study’s findings about the general population, it also uncovered another somewhat surprising tidbit. The groups of people most concerned with privacy appear to be Southerners, divorcees and people between the ages of 45 and 54.

“Divorcees, I put that in the bucket of you’ve gone through substantive life changes and you’re probably more skeptical and leery and cautious potentially than people who haven’t had that kind of life change,” Babel said, speculating on the reasons for their apparent heightened concern. “The age group one and the divorcee one resonated.”

But Southerners? Said Babel: “I don’t have a good hypothesis.”