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Consumers want privacy, not anonymity October 29, 2009

Posted by jonathanpenn in privacy.

I recently came across two posts about online privacy with quite different viewpoints. The first was from Eugene Kaspersky on the Kaspersky-run security news site Threatpost. In it, he talks about the loss of anonymity on the Internet (or, if we never had it, our inability to acquire it). It’s a thoughtful piece, but I don’t see anonymity as something Internet users (consumers) truly seek.

The second post was an article on CNET interview with Bruce Schneier. When CNET asked: “What do you think are the most serious legitimate threats to consumer privacy?”, Schneier responded: “Marketing. The legal collection, storage, resale, and reuse of personal information. Information brokers are doing more to hurt consumer privacy than anything criminals or the government can do.”

Now, most consumers don’t do a good job of articulating their concerns or needs. But then again, Bruce Schneier is not most consumers. He’s dead on: the issue isn’t about keeping information to yourself (anonymity). It’s about the rights of consumers and responsibilities of coprporations when consumers divulge information. This could be data we specifically entrust to organizations (bank account info, passwords, etc). But it’s also about the kind of information that is collected without your active consent: search engine terms you entered, sites you visited, items you shop for. These are not actively given to anyone, but passively acquired through our interactions with Google, the use of third party cookies and other tracking mechanisms, and use of shopping tools to find the lowest prices.

I wrote about this in a Forrester report earlier this year, “Consumers Turn To Freeware As Their Security Concerns Deepen“. When we asked US online consumers “What personal information are you willing to have in the public domain?”, more people were willing to have their PII exposed than their web browsing and purchasing activity.


Very few people truly seek anonymity; what most of seek is privacy: protections that only certain data is collected, that it is used only for intended purposes, that it is not shared beyond reasonable use and our consent, and that it is destroyed or deleted when the intended purposes are satisfied.

And, by the way: did anyone notice Bruce’s subtle endorsement of freeware AV among the advice he gives friends to protect themselves online: “[A]cquire and install a good antivirus program (there are good free ones), and configure your OS and router to protect you.


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