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Report: Net privacy tools are confusing and ineffective

Consumer Reports News: October 31, 2011 12:38 PM

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Software and popular Web browsers come with tools to help consumer protect their privacy by blocking online tracking tricks. But the software tools are too complex—or ineffectual—for most technically challenged consumers, say researchers.

Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory came to this conclusion after conducting a study testing the usability of three opt-out tools (such as PrivacyMark), two built-in browser settings, and four blocking tools (including Adblock Plus0. The researchers examined how 45 non-technical Web surfers interacted with these tools, using browser versions Mozilla Firefox 5 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Web. Among the findings:

  • The default settings of these tools generally do not block tracking.
  • Information tends to be presented at levels that are either too simplistic to inform a user's decision or too technical to be understood.
  • Most of the tools provided little, if any, feedback, so users couldn't tell whether the opt-out was working or even what it meant to be opted out.
  • Users weren't sure when the tools had caused parts of a website to stop working.
  • Most tools suffered from major usability flaws.

Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab laboratory, stated in CMU's press release:

We found that most people were confused by the instructions and had trouble installing or configuring the tools correctly. Often, the settings they chose failed to protect their privacy as much as they expected, or to do anything at all.

For more information and tips on how to protect your privacy while surfing the Internet, see Consumer Reports Guide to Online Security.

Carnegie Mellon report finds Internet privacy tools are confusing, ineffective for most people [Press release via EurekAlert]
Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out (PDF) [Carnegie Mellon University]

Paul Eng

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