New Survey Opens Window Into Public’s Actual Thoughts on Online Privacy, Security

Cross-posted by on WLF’s Contributor Site

What privacy and security concerns do “digital citizens” here in the United States and elsewhere have relating to their use of the Internet, and where can they turn for help? If you asked that question of consumer advocates or government officials, most would reflexively respond that privacy and security concerns are serious and widespread, and that federal and/or state  governments must provide protection. But what if you asked actual consumers? The media often conveys consumers’ thoughts anecdotally, but there is little data-driven research into the perceptions of digital citizens.

October is “National Cyber Security Awareness Month,” and in commemoration of it, Microsoft Corporation did a survey of consumers in five countries, which resulted in the Microsoft Computing Safety Index. The survey is a window (no pun intended) into consumers’ use of online safety tools and their opinions on privacy and security. The survey is the first of its kind, and was limited to Windows-based PC users in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, and Brazil.

I was honored to represent Washington Legal Foundation at a program on October 27 where the Safety Index was released. In attendance were reporters, government agency staff, numerous businesses’ government affairs personnel, and interest group staffers. U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee offered opening comments leading into a panel moderated by Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer which featured me, Microsoft’s Jacqueline Beauchere, Family Online Safety Insitute CEO Stephen Balkam, and National Cyber Security Alliance CEO Michael Kaiser.

The survey results paint a picture of digital citizens that are concerned about their online privacy and the security of their personal and financial data. But, likely to the chagrin of self-appointed consumer advocates, the data reflects digital citizens taking personal responsibility for their privacy and security, and looking to online product and service providers, not government, for help. This kind of self-empowerment mindset, I noted at the October 27 event, supports the type of self-regulatory efforts that individual companies and coalitions of companies are pursuing as a viable alternative to top-down federal or state mandates. If companies strive to engineer privacy and security into their products and services, I explained, then that gives consumers the opportunity, if not the duty, to do the same – engineer a secure online experience for themselves.

Government can, and should, work with companies and consumers to devise effective self-regulatory, self-empowerment principles and devices. Such an approach is far more flexible than government regulation, can respond more quickly to technological changes, and avoid constitutional concerns. I noted that consumer groups like Center for Democracy & Technology and the ACLU espouse this kind of “educate and empower” approach when it comes to free speech. But self-empowerment and education regretfully seem to be the last options for them when it comes to online information and data protection.

If you on a Windows-based PC, you can take the same survey taken by participants in the Computing Index by clicking here.

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