Internet surfers have long worried that they have insufficient control over their online privacy — despite the privacy policies many people agree to when they visit websites or use online services.
There are data to support the surfers' feelings: Online privacy policies are so cumbersome and onerous that it would take the average person about 250 working hours every year — about 30 full working days — to actually read the privacy policies of the websites they visit in a year, according to an analysis by researchers Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor.
The Federal Trade Commission has recently announced it is exploring whether to give consumers greater control over their online privacy. Online privacy is currently not regulated in the United States. Authorities have encouraged companies to disclose information to users, based on the idea that users will then read the policies and make enlightened decisions about which companies to trust with their information.
But the proliferation of long, onerous and often difficult-to-follow privacy policies has led to a situation where most people consent to privacy policies without reading or understanding them, Cranor says.
"If people were to actually stop and read all of them for every website that they visited, they could spend on the order of 200 to 250 hours a year — about a month of time at work each year that you could spend reading privacy policies," she says. "It's insane."
Privacy policies are so onerous that Cranor's graduate students moan in protest when she asks them to read three policies for class.
Cranor said most Americans do not understand the full extent to which their personal information is being captured and mined.
"When you go into a shopping mall, there's nobody following you around," she says. "Imagine that as you go around your shopping mall, you have someone who is not only looking and commenting — but actually recording everything that you look at, every time you hesitate, every time you remark about something. And then, after you leave the shopping mall, and you go to your dentist's office, you go to the doctor's, you go to pick your kids up from school, they continue to follow you around, and everything is being recorded. I think that is what you have on the Internet."
If people actually were to read the policies placed before them, Cranor says, the total cost — in time alone — would be around $781 billion a year.