Internet users who want to protect their privacy by stopping advertisers from tracking their online behavior will have a tough time of it.
Commonly available "opt-out" tools aren't very user-friendly, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University report.
User testing found that privacy options in popular browsers, as well as online tools or plug-ins for blocking access by certain websites or otherwise opting out of tracking, were hard for the typical user to understand or to configure successfully.
"All nine of the tools we tested have serious usability flaws," said Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory (CUPS).
"We found that most people were confused by the instructions and had trouble installing or configuring the tools correctly," Cranor said. "Often, the settings they chose failed to protect their privacy as much as they expected, or to do anything at all."
The CUPS technical report, "Why Johnny Can't Opt Out," is available online at http://www.cylab.cmu.edu/research/techreports/2011/tr_cylab11017.html.
The growth of online behavioral advertising (OBA), which targets individuals with advertising based on their online activity, has caused some privacy advocates to press for regulations limiting the information companies can gather, or providing a dependable Do-Not-Track mechanism.
For now, individuals concerned about their privacy must take steps on their own.
To assess the ability of non-technical individuals to protect themselves, the Carnegie Mellon researchers evaluated the privacy settings on two popular browsers, Mozilla Firefox 5 and Internet Explorer 9.
They also tested three tools that set opt-out cookies that are supposed to prevent particular advertising networks from displaying ads to users: DAA Consumer Choice, Evidon Global Opt-Out and PrivacyMark.
And they tested four tools that are supposed to block certain sites from tracking the user at all: Ghostery 2.5.3, TACO 4.0, Adblock Plus 1.3.9 and IE9 Tracking Protection.
The researchers recruited 45 people without technical training who use the Internet frequently. Each person was interviewed and assigned tools to test based on their browser and operating system preferences.
The major findings:
- Users can't distinguish between trackers.
- Inappropriate defaults.
- Communication problems.
- Need for feedback.
- Users want protections that don't break things.
- Unusable interfaces.
"The status quo clearly is insufficient to empower people to protect their privacy from OBA companies," Cranor said. "A lot of effort is being put into creating these tools to help consumers, but it will all be wasted — and people will be left vulnerable — unless a greater emphasis is placed on usability."
In addition to Cranor, an associate professor of computer science and engineering and public policy, the authors include CyLab research scientist Yang Wang and Ph.D. students Pedro G. Leon, Blase Ur, Rebecca Balebako and Richard Shay. This research was supported by The Privacy Projects and the National Science Foundation.