Few Australians trust social media with personal information but do little about it


When it comes to privacy, Australians are fairly clear about which organisations they trust and what information they feel uncomfortable with sharing. This is according to a report released by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) this week.

According to the report, only 12% of Australians believe that social media companies are trustworthy compared to 79% who trust health service providers and 58% who trust federal government departments.

32% of Australians believe that online services, including social media sites, pose the biggest risk to privacy. 25% of those surveyed also regretted putting information on a social networking site.

Despite this however, 61% of respondents didn’t regularly read privacy policies for online services and 43% had not adjusted their privacy settings on social media sites. Australians were also sketchy about their rights, especially privacy laws in Australia and who to report misuse of personal information to.

When it comes to attitudes towards online companies and social media companies in particular, it is hardly surprising that the public should treat them with the greatest suspicion. It is not that these companies necessarily have more information about their users. Australians trust health service providers that collect and store the most intimate personal information about patients. In the case of health services however, they are storing and using personal information for the direct benefit of their customers, whereas social media companies are storing and using personal information for their own benefit, to drive advertising and make money, and less so for their customers’ benefit.

When asked explicitly whether they would be prepared to trade personal information in exchange for an explicit benefit from a company or organisation, only 33% said that they would be likely to do so. Given that this is exactly the exchange that they are undertaking with companies like Facebook and Google, it highlights the fact that people don’t generally think of their use of free online services in this way. It might however, explain why users of social media services do not trust these services as 62% of Australians are reported as being uncomfortable with targeted advertising as a result of online activity.

It is no surprise that people don’t read privacy notices for online services, especially those of social media companies. For a start, the terms of a company’s privacy policy are rarely explicitly shown to a user before they sign up and create an account. For those that want to find out about how personal information will be collected and used, they would need to find the privacy policy, read through it, be able to understand it and then be able to make a decision on the basis of that information. That is not a particularly easy task.

A company like Facebook for example, has an extensive privacy policy that is complicated and understates what Facebook actually does with personal information. It is an involved process finding all of the detail of how Facebook tracks a user both when they are using Facebook itself and also when they are just visiting other web pages. Facebook however summarises all of this as:

“We use the information we have to improve our advertising and measurement systems so we can show you relevant ads on and off our Services”

Social media also involves the sharing of information with other people. According to the OAIC report, 63% of people surveyed saw the use of social networking as a public activity rather than a private one.

The Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, has said in reference to this report that:

“For businesses, these results show there is still work to do to make privacy easy for customers to manage. Those long-winded privacy notices and complex settings need to be replaced by clear language and point-in-time notifications.”

All companies should show a clearly stated notices before people start using an application or web site. These could use a common accepted set of terms and displayed in the same way that Android, and to a lesser extent Apple, displays privacy warnings when installing an app on phones.

The report ultimately shows that educating the public about privacy and what to do about protecting it and also reporting the misuse of personal information is an ongoing challenge.

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