Online privacy plan could keep your donut habit hidden

Do you want your insurance company to be able to find our how much you've been searching for coupons for unhealthy food like donuts?

What if you were up late one night, searching for some good online coupons for sweet treats like donuts or cake, and somehow that data was passed along to your insurance company, who then hiked up their rates?

That is just one example of the kinds of fears government officials and consumers alike have concerning online privacy. Today, the Obama administration has proposed a consumer privacy bill of rights to protect Internet users from having too much personal information exposed.

Tracking can have many benefits for companies, and even consumers -- who might enjoy the way, say, an ad for ice cream pops up if you search for "rocky road."

According to Chris Sumner at the Online Privacy Foundation, the problem is when such data collection is taken a step farther.

"You know if you're looking for a group discount on donuts," he cites as an example, "you'd expect it to be used in that way and not passed on to an insurance company that might say: Hey this guy likes donuts, could be a greater risk for heart disease or what have you."

One facet of this will be a national standard for a "do not track" button on websites. While many Internet browsers already have privacy options, like Firefox's "private browsing" or Google Chrome's "incognito" to name a few, the rules on this still aren't quite clear. Many Internet advertisers have not opted in to your decision to opt out, so they can still try to track you, even if your browser doesn't.

Marc Rotenberg directs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and he says we can find a good model in the "Do Not Call list" -- it must apply to any business that touches your personal data online, including cell phone companies, mobile apps, and plain old websites.

"If you focus on the data that's being collected," he says, "and not the technology used to collect the data, you can actually write laws that do very well over time."


Adriene Hill: On the White House agenda today: a consumer privacy "Bill of Rights." The Obama administration says we need more protection from companies that have gotten better and better at tracking us online. These days they can figure out what we like, what we want, and what we're planning to do in the future. It's kind of unnerving.

For more we go to Marketplace's Eve Troeh. Good morning.

Eve Troeh: Good morning.

Hill: So how much can the president really change how tech companies track us?

Troeh: Well, today's bill of rights is a start. There are seven items -- like if an Internet browser is keeping track of the sites you visit, it has to tell you it's doing that; tell you who it's sharing the data with.

I talked with Chris Sumner at the Online Privacy Foundation, and he told me one of the most important parts of the bill of rights is context.

Chris Sumner: You know if you're looking for a group discount on donuts, for example, you'd expect it to be used in that way and not passed on to an insurance company that might say: Hey this guy likes donuts, could be a greater risk for heart disease or what have you.

Yeah, so let's say your insurance bill did go up because they somehow get wind of that donut coupon --

Hill: Who would tell them?

Troeh: Well, we don't know -- but the bill says you have the right to find out.

Hill: The White House says Internet companies have agreed to put a "Do Not Track" button on some browsers. But we've seen those  for a while, so what's today's news about?

Troeh: Well if you've already been using a "do not track" or a "private browing" option on Firefox, or Internet Explorer or some other browser, it probably does not mean what you think it does. And the advertising and data tracking companies did not agree to abide by them, so they've been collecting data even if you chose "do not track." Now, a group of digital ad companies says they will honor the button.

And the browsing companies, for their part, won't be able to share data about your browsing for job or credit or health insurance screening. So they can't tell Blue Cross I searched for maple bacon donuts, for example. They can, however, still follow the pages you visit if it's for market research, or if the cops ask for it.

Hill: Marketplace's Eve Troeh, thanks.

Troeh: Thanks.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.


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