About 45% of 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed on behalf of Microsoft by Ipsos Public Affairs believe they have little or no control over the personal information companies gather about them while using online services.
Yet almost as many, about 40%, believe they totally or mostly understand how to protect their privacy online. Approximately the same percentage says they rely on friends, family and privacy statements as their primary sources of privacy information. About a third of respondents say they pay close attention to companies' privacy reputations when choosing online services.
[ Google is getting more requests for information from the government. Read more at Google Sees Growing Government Demand For User Data. ]
Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer at Microsoft, said in an interview that while most of those concerned about privacy probably aren't reading privacy policies line by line, they are paying attention and companies can't afford to ignore such concerns. "It's incumbent for organizations to be good stewards of the data and to really be more transparent and to provide people with more information about how they can protect themselves," said Lynch.
Privacy has been a part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative for over a decade. But it has become particularly important in the age of mobile social computing. As Google's services have begun to destabilize the foundations of Microsoft's desktop empire and businesses have begun to be seduced by the promise of "big data," Microsoft has been looking to privacy as a key point of differentiation.
"The way that we've been thinking about privacy increasingly is it's a feature, when you're producing software and services and devices," Lynch said. "We're viewing privacy as a way to better understand what our customers want and what they think and then deliver against that need."
To give customers more control over their online data, Microsoft has developed services like its Personal Data Dashboard and has implemented Web browsing features like Do Not Track, despite lack of industry consensus.
Some people see privacy as an all-or-nothing proposition. Lynch argues that privacy is better defined as a set of choices. He believes that privacy can coexist with services that encourage people to share information.
"There's this potential definition of privacy which is binary, which is more akin to secrecy," he said. "But it's really evolved. ...It's not so much about secrecy anymore as it is about control. So yes, people want to share information, but they want to share information [selectively]. What our research showed us is there's still a significant portion of the population that doesn't feel in control ... and they're looking to learn more about how they can be in more control about their privacy."
Privacy has never worked very well as a business. Like security, it tends to something people become interested in after it's too late. Rewind a decade and you'll find the ruins of several dot-com boom startups that failed to sell privacy as a service.
Control, on the other hand, might just sell. But it will be hard to convince people they have control when terms of service documents enforce one-sided contracts, governments can get online data on demand, and cyber criminals can bypass many security measures.
Offensive cybersecurity is a tempting prospect. It's also way too early to go there. Here's what to do instead. Also in the new, all-digital Nuclear Option issue of InformationWeek: Military agencies worldwide are figuring out the tactics and capabilities that will be critical in any future cyber war. (Free registration required.)