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Do Consumers Care About Online Privacy Anymore?

Man bored in front of laptop

According to the latest online search trends, concerns about Internet privacy are so 2004.

If this sounds incredible to you, let me explain.

First, some background. An individual’s search queries can reveal interesting information about their interests. When this data is amassed across many individuals, it can provide insights into consumers as a whole. Google is one of the first companies to make use of its large historical database of search engine queries to try to better understand consumers. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Google Flu Trends which uses both historical and real-time data to predict the level of influenza in the population across time.

Google has also made a version of its database of search queries available to the public in a product called Google Trends. Google Trends shows how many searches have been performed on a particular search term relative to the total number of searches. Individuals can use Google Trends to discover the relative popularity of search terms for a particular period of time or for a particular location. Google Trends does not show total search volume, but rather normalizes the data to show a search term’s relative importance to other terms. In addition, the data displayed on graphs in Google Trends is scaled so that the highest value in any particular time frame is 100. This makes trends easier to see.

Google Trends allows us to explore trends in consumer interest in online privacy. As shown in the figure below, the relative importance of “online privacy” in the United States has been in gradual decline since 2004. This contradicts the conventional wisdom, pushed by privacy advocates, that Internet privacy is an area of growing concern for consumers.

Google Trends also shows the relative importance of search terms compared across different cities. Again, this does not just show which city is searching the most in absolute terms for a particular item but rather which have the largest portion of searches for the term. Surprisingly it is not a tech heavy city like San Francisco which is at the top of the list, but rather Washington, DC by quite a significant margin.

What might explain this geographic anomaly? One possibility is that Internet privacy issues are being driven by a vocal minority in Washington, DC. In particular, this might be evidence of the privacy-industrial complex—the for-profit privacy advocates who stand to profit the more people are scared about their privacy. These advocates include a self-reinforcing coalition of “certified” privacy professionals who advance their interests by decrying existing privacy efforts as inadequate while demanding that government agencies and corporations hire chief privacy officers, engage in privacy audits, and follow privacy by design principles (thereby guaranteeing privacy professionals steady employment). While certainly more data is needed to prove causation, it is worth noting that during this same period the annual budget for the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), the primary trade association for privacy professionals, grew 15-fold.

So what does all of this mean?

I’ll be the first to agree that Google Trends is only one data set and that the decline in relative interest in privacy by consumers might be explained by other unrecorded variables. But it is also clear that had the opposite been true—had the relative number of search queries about online privacy increased over time—privacy advocates would have cited this as evidence that consumers are demanding more privacy. So the results should receive some weight.

Moreover, given these results, it is worth considering whether it is really consumers, rather than a small but persistent group of privacy advocates, who are driving the Internet privacy debate. If not, we should make sure policymakers hear from real consumers. Or at a minimum, the next time someone makes the claim that privacy concerns are growing, you should tell them, “show me the data.”


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