grades websites on respect for privacy

Christina Bucciere

He calls it “the web’s report card,” and it can help students know what data their favorite websites are collecting from them.

Launched in 2012 by Andrew Nicol, former corporate attorney and technology entrepreneur based in New York City, analyzes the privacy policies and practices of the leading consumer websites.

How to protect your data

from the Office of Security and Access Management (Division of IT)

•Use a strong password

•Choose challenging security questions that would be difficult for people to guess

•Make sure your operating system has regularly applied updates

•Run anti-virus software regularly

•Be aware of the data that is on your computer and what you need to do to delete it

•If you have sensitive data on your computer, delete it or keep it encrypted

“The big sites try to set themselves up to make money off our data by writing broad terms of service agreements that allow them to collect, share and sometimes sell our data,” Nicol said. “So it’s important to know what we’re getting ourselves into.”

Nicol grades and ranks website based on how they stack up when it comes to respecting and protecting your privacy rights.

He distributes the points between four main categories: Date Use, Data Disclosure, Amendment, and Termination and Miscellaneous.

These categories measure issues such as what data the site collects, what information the site discloses to others and when, if the site gives you notice when it makes a policy change, and how well the site provides you with information about the site’s legal agreements.

In the final evaluation step, Nicol deciphers each site’s terms of service agreement and spells them out in laymen’s terms in a brief summary.

Currently, Clickwrapped has 15 sites in its survey with plans already made to add “10 more sites in a few weeks’ time,” Nicol said.

Nicol said he felt his knowledge of the law and interest in technology would provide a well-rounded set of skills that would be able to alert people of these issues and “ultimately pressure the sites into being more reasonable.”

Gwen Volkert, computer science professor, said she was impressed with Nicol’s assessment of privacy policies.

“I thought for a first crack it was a transparent and understandable way to do it,” Volkert said. “The writing made it understandable even if you’re not a computer scientist, and I was very pleased to see that they were asking for feedback.”

Volkert said what she liked most about Clickwrapped’s analysis was the explanation of why each site received their score.

“That’s even more important than the ranking the sites–telling you why,” Volkert said. “Because that gives you a better sense of whether each part of the score and its rationale is important to me. If they didn’t tell me how they did it, I would be suspicious.”

Volkert said one concern with the website is the issue of updating the information on a regular basis because the information will go out of date as companies change their policies.

“My other concern is, because this is out there, there will certainly be people that work at those sites that will figure out ways to tweak their policies to still do what they want to do but make it look like they’re better,” Volkert said.

Nicol said he was prompted to explain terms of service agreements to people because they contain many things that may surprise people.

“The thing that struck me most was that many websites get very extensive rights to content that we post,” Nicol said. “But most people don’t know that because people don’t take the time to read the privacy policies, and they’re hard to understand.”

In a 2011 research paper by Florencia Morrata-Wurgler, a law professor of New York University law school, she found only .11 percent of people view a site’s terms of service. And if the site requires you to push “I agree” to those terms, the statistic drops to just .07 percent. Even less people read them when a user has to click twice to see the terms– only 1 in 10,000 or .0001 percent.

Students reflect the findings of this research:

“It [terms of service agreement] doesn’t affect me. As soon as I see ‘terms of agreement’, I scroll down and hit ‘I agree’,” said junior Fashion Merchandising major Rachel West.

“They are too long and unreasonable to read, and it’s not going to change the fact that I am going to use that site, so it’s pressure to hit ‘I agree’ and get it out of the way,” said sophomore Aeronautics/Flight Technology major Daniel Schiff.

Nicol said another problem is the lack of context.

“If you see a provision that looks suspicious, you have no way of knowing if it’s common practice or if you’re agreeing to something unusual,” Nicol said.

But what Nicol said concerns him most about the terms of service agreements is the rights the companies claim on our data.

“The rights that they get are much broader than what they need, Nicol said. “For example, LinkedIn does not need the right to use and commercialize all of our content for any purpose. We have no guarantee that somewhere down the road these companies won’t abuse these rights.”

Volkert agrees with Nicol’s concern.

“I’ll make an analogy to the food industry. They abuse the word whole grain and make it seem like there’s more nutritional value than there really is. It might be a whole grain that’s so useless it doesn’t matter. So aren’t they doing the same thing? Taking advantage of people’s perception of information and twisting it to their benefit?” Volkert said.

Nicol said the most concerning site he evaluated is the lowest scoring site, Craigslist, with a score of 45.

“I wouldn’t describe it as dangerous, but there’s definitely a lot in there that worries me,” Nicol said.

Website Rankings

(Score out of 100)

1. Wikipedia- 86

2. Dropbox- 80

3. Google- 71

4. Facebook- 70

5. Amazon- 69

6. Yahoo!- 66

7. Spotify- 62

8. Twitter- 62

9. eBay- 62

10. Pinterest- 62

11. LinkedIn- 59

12. PayPal- 56

13. Microsoft- 55

14. Netflix- 50

15. Craigslist- 45

He said Craigslist is theoretically able to sue people for posting something in the wrong category and is allowed to do anything with one’s content.

“The rules [on Craigslist] are mostly there for spammers, but since that’s not clear, they can technically come after anybody they want,” Nicol said.

Volkert said she was not surprised by Craigslist’s low score.

”I totally expected Craigslist to be the worst. How else are they going to make money? The only way that company can make money is by using and selling your data,” Volkert said.

Ultimately, Nicol hopes Clickwrapped will accomplish two goals: to help people make good choices between services based on how well they respect your rights and to push companies to make their terms more balanced.

But Volkert said to remember that the data these sites collect is often used with good intentions.

“For example: child pornography. Let’s say that we put some of these algorithms to use that could search through social media and pull out everything that had some keyword that implies some bad behavior. It all depends on who the data is being sold to,” Volkert said.

Volkert also mentions that the collected data creates conveniences in our everyday lives.

“As we have given away our privacy, it’s very easy to talk about what we’ve lost and forget about what we’ve gained,” Volkert said. “That information is very useful. I want the internet to know where I am so they can give me suggestions for where the nearest Starbucks is.”

Volkert said that the use of “geo-tagging,” the ability of the internet to track where each data input comes from, makes it easy for the internet to re-orient how it feeds information to the user based on their location and needs.

“We trade convenience and privacy off regularly. Even being aware of it, I’m not going to stop doing it,” Volkert said. “There’s no way to reconcile how much privacy we give up for the amount of freedom we want.”

The risks of this tradeoff for the average person are mostly crime-related issues such as theft or stalking, Volkert said.

“In terms of their long-term future, it’s impossible to know what the risks are of having this amount of data and information readily available,” Volkert said.

Nicol said to be aware of the sites that you use by investigating and using the privacy controls and to limit the number of sites you use.

“The most important piece of advice is to use common sense in deciding what to post on the web,” Nicol said. “The best way of protecting yourself from privacy violations is to not put your sensitive content out there in the first place.”

Contact Christina Bucciere at [email protected].