Who cares about online privacy?

The holidays are coming, and that means millions of consumers will hunt for gifts online. Courtesy of the National Security Agency spying controversy, the 2013 holiday season will feature an added twist of uncertainty about Web privacy, and don’t think retailers aren’t worried about it.

Consumers are another story, according to Steve Noll, a marketing-social media professor in the School of Business and Applied Arts at Madison College. His background is in advertising and marketing sales, and he’s not convinced that consumers are bent out of shape about online privacy. He notes that we’re living in an age where consumers are okay with Facebook selling their information to advertisers but freak out about the notion of subscription-based online business models, which would offer more privacy.

With the National Retail Federation forecasting solid holiday sales, IB discussed online privacy with Noll.

IB: It’s been several months since the NSA controversy erupted. What’s your sense of how alarmed the public is about online privacy?

Steve Noll

Noll: I’ve always felt that online privacy is something that most people are aware of, but the reality is most people actually don’t do much about it. Most people who use things like Facebook, if you go onto their site, they have not taken steps to secure their site against people who are not friends being able to have access to it. So it seems to me that every few months, some story comes out about online privacy, and it gets everybody hyped up, but then not a lot of people really do much about it. They think about it for a few months and they kind of forget about it until the next incident, and then they get all stirred up about it. It’s kind of like this recurring cycle of nothing.

Obviously, this NSA story was much bigger than the typical identity theft report that usually triggers these types of conversations, but by the time the Christmas shopping season gets here, people are not going to be considering that anymore. The whole NSA issue, among general consumers, is going to fade into the background. I don’t see this changing people’s online shopping behavior.

IB: Do you sense a high level of urgency among online merchants, especially since a lack of trust in data security could substantially curtail online shopping?

Noll: I’m sure they are worried about it because anybody would worry about anything that potentially could hurt them. If you look at how online retailing works, there is so much security in there already. This is the question that I ask in one of my classes: Who here does not shop online? At least one person raises their hand. And then I ask why don’t you shop online? And he says, ‘Well, I don’t trust it. I don’t trust my information getting out there.’ I follow that question up with, ‘Do you shop at the mall?’ He says, ‘Of course I do, that’s where I have to get all my stuff.’

And the reality is, when you go to a mall and you give somebody your credit card, and even if they scan the card into a cash register and give it back to you, they have still have the opportunity to kind of glance at that card and potentially memorize that information and quickly write it down as soon as you’re done with that transaction. That is infinitely more risky than going on Amazon, where it’s secured computers talking on an encrypted network. The people who are kind of afraid of it — I don’t think they understand how it actually works and how there are so many other things out there that are infinitely riskier that they have an actual comfort level with.

Some of the big companies like Amazon, it would not surprise me to see in some of their marketing campaigns that they emphasize that they are in a secure environment, but I think the general public does not understand what ‘secure’ means. You know when you have these little padlock symbols on your computer? A lot of people don’t know about those. I’d say about 50% of the people don’t even know to look for that to know they are on a secured website, or even looking at the http line. If it’s got the https, that means it’s a secured server. There are so many things that people are just kind of clueless about in terms of security. I don’t think they even realize that if companies spend money upping their security level even higher than it is, I don’t think that would affect people anyway. I think maybe saying shop at our secured site, just saying that in a copy line, would be the most impactful thing to do.



IB: Can more savvy online consumers take proactive steps to protect themselves before the holiday shopping season gets in full swing, or do the merchants basically do that for them, as you suggest?

Noll: One of the things, obviously, is looking for things, looking for the padlock, checking to make sure that you are on a secured server. So those are probably the two easiest things, especially the padlock. Just double-checking when you go on, especially if it’s an e-commerce website you’re not familiar with. If it’s not an Amazon or an eBay, making sure that they are acknowledging they are making this transaction securely. That would be the number one thing that people need to be aware of, is just the general, simple clues when you’re online that say you’re on a secure shopping site.

IB: Is there any promising technology or “app” that consumers can use to remain in control of the personal data that merchants have on them — if they have any qualms about how it’s used or shared?

Noll: Here’s the thing with apps. We’re starting to see some third-party apps that people are promoting as something that can be used for more security, but there have also been some stories that some of these companies are scams, that they are using people’s paranoia about the recent news stories to almost scam people to download their app and run it and we will make sure your data is secure. What they are actually doing is they are collecting information from people and using it maliciously. I would caution people against downloading or using some new technology from a company you never head of just because it promises you security.

Something like this security scare, which has gotten people so emotional, is exactly what con artists will prey on. That emotional freak-out is the recipe con artists look for to take advantage of people. Certainly, if you are using an app from Amazon and Amazon says we have this new version of an app and you can update this app for added security, well then you would definitely want to do that. If you’re going out to find something, I would do some research on the company before you pay them or use them. It’s just ripe for scams.

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