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Standardizing Privacy Notifications
By: Jessica Cherok
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Do you know the details of your online data privacy? No, of course you don’t. No one does. Don’t feel too bad. For whatever reason, it’s become rocket-science complicated.

What is clear: The White House has decided this is a big issue. After developing the Privacy Bill of Rights, The White House has set about pressuring the app industry to come up with a fix to the issue of informing the consumer. If the industry can’t come up with a system on its own, then it’s likely Congress will become involved, setting federal regulations for privacy.

While Congressional involvement would force standardization, it would also come with cumbersome (and costly) processes.

For months, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been trying to address the issue of standardizing privacy notifications. Hardly an enviable job to be tasked with; after all, there are a lot of competing interests. What all parties seem to agree on is that no one reads apps' Terms of Service. But it’s how to solve the problem that has everyone at odds.

One suggested resolution is the use of icons. Supporters feel that users would be able to easily recognize the scope of an application’s privacy settings via the little icon, the same way people understand the meaning of a stop sign.

Iconography is widely used to convey meaning in situations where a drawn out ramble of text would be inappropriate. Imagine if the definition of stopping was posted in place of every stop sign. Just as they currently do with Terms of Service, people would not take the time to read the definition of stopping, and thus make up their own interpretation.

Of course, you can argue that people do that now with the stop sign icon.

Therein lies the issue: Even with an icon, would users really understand what the Terms of Service mean? Would they really be informed about what the application is doing with their data? Or would it just be a generalized and somewhat ambiguous knowledge?

Regardless of lengthy or brief Terms of Service explanations or a system of privacy icons, there currently is not a standardized way of handling data amongst applications. Meaning, they can do whatever they want, especially because Congress hasn’t yet stepped in to force standardization. And with some of the biggest applications out there refusing to participate in standardizing an icon, the whole process is being bogged down.

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About the Author
Jessica Cherok is an advocate for online privacy, campaigning for ethical data practices and the protection of personal privacy.
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