Heather ShoenberberHow often do you read the privacy policy before you click, “I agree to the terms and conditions”?

On Jan. 14, 2016, researchers, government advocates and industry representatives gathered to discuss questions like that, as well as the many other issues surrounding data security and privacy in the digital world, at PrivacyCon in Washington, D.C.

At the conference, which was the first event of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) laid out five key topics: the state of online privacy, consumer expectations, big data, the economics of privacy and security, and security and usability. Researchers had the opportunity to present their findings on these issues and then engage in a broader discussion.

Among those researchers was Heather Shoenberger, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC). Shoenberger and her co-author, Jasmine McNealy from the University of Florida, presented their study “Offline v Online: Re-Examining the Reasonable Consumer Standard in the Digital Context,” which nationally surveyed and analyzed people’s habits when accepting a privacy policy on a website.

“Privacy in regards to data gathered from a plethora of sources is an important topic in today’s society,” Shoenberger said.

The researchers found that simple cues, such as the presence of a privacy policy and the appearance of a website, predicted both privacy concern and the indicated behavior of “always clicking yes” to terms and conditions on apps and websites. These behaviors persisted above and beyond other well-researched predictors, such as trust in the advertising industry and the belief that people have control over their own data online.

The study begged the question of whether consumers have real notice and choice about their online data if they are using simple cues to make decisions about site safety.

“I am interested in finding a balance between consumer privacy and the free flow of data,” Shoenberger said. “That balance should increase consumer trust and empower entities that collect and use data. As the director of the SOJC Insights and Analytics Lab, where students examine large datasets, it is important I consistently examine this issue from an legal and ethical standpoint to keep our students up to date on the power and pitfalls of big data.”

The Insights and Analytics Lab, which opened in January, is “still a work in progress,” according to Shoenberger. It is the first lab in the nation that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to learn and research about analytics. “I think it is important for the students using big data to understand how it could affect consumers and the importance of using data ethically,” Shoenberger said.

Written by Nikki Kesaris ’18