Inside 1to1:Privacy

Privacy's Nutrition Label

August 1, 2009

By Larry Dobrow

The need for more simplified privacy policies isn't exactly breaking news. For years, consumers--at least those few who bothered to read them--flailed amid the policies' mix of dense legalese and impermeable jargon. While pundits and consumer advocates railed against the worst offenders and pressed the need for a different approach, it's not as if they could do much about how, say, Best Buy or Bank of America framed their privacy/information-sharing disclosures.

Behind the scenes, however, a team of academics, researchers, and wonks from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft have been attempting to bring clarity and ease-of-use to the privacy-policies debate. The first drafts of their efforts, dubbed the "nutrition label for privacy," have been tested extensively with consumers and privacy experts alike. While a final product is still months away, the initial versions would make privacy policies easily interpretable for the first time ever.

The academic/research team set out with a single goal, according to Lorrie Cranor, a professor in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science: to create a standardized format for privacy policies. At first, a bulleted-list format was discussed and mocked up, but it ultimately proved unworkable. Before long, however, the group glanced at a nutrition label on the back of a box of cereal and had a collective "Eureka!" moment.

"Nutrition labels--you don't read them every time you buy a product, but you know they're there and you know what you're going to find on them," Cranor explains. "Let's say you go to the doctor and you're told you have high cholesterol--well, then you look at the label. We were thinking a nutrition-label-type setup might be useful in the same way for privacy."

The mantra throughout the nutrition label's evolution was singular: Keep it simple. To that end, the Carnegie Mellon/Microsoft team endeavored to eliminate verbiage not familiar to privacy novices. Phrases like "behavioral profiling" were broken down and explained in basic language. Even terminology like "opt in" and "opt out" was briefly removed from consideration, before being re-installed in later iterations.

"It was very tempting to use symbols to represent various things, but it's hard for people to understand symbols when you're talking about fudgy concepts like privacy," Cranor recalls, admitting with a knowing laugh that there were "all kinds of disasters." As of late July, she and her peers were still deciding the fate of the dreaded red exclamation point, used in the nutrition label to announce that a company collects data and doesn't allow users to opt in or opt out, among other things. Apparently focus groups found it too harsh and negative.

So far, feedback from those groups as well as privacy experts--Cranor and her peers handed out drafts of the nutrition label at several conferences, encouraging attendees to mark them up and send them back--has been largely positive. Several A-list companies have responded with enthusiasm and hinted they might eventually want to use the label (Cranor declines to identify them). Others have praised the snapshot the nutrition label gives of an organization's privacy practices, but are hoping it can be amended to include information about third-party advertising or social-networking practices.

"One thing you do lose is that very detailed bit about third-party advertising. We can represent in the grid everything that comes as a part of it, but maybe not at the level of detail some people may want," Cranor concedes. As a result, the label is being tweaked for online use: When a user mouses over any cell in the grid, more information will appear on his screen.

As for the future, Cranor says that the nutrition label will be built into the privacyfinder.org search engine--possibly by the time you read this. More testing is currently taking place, with Cranor et al particularly focused on whether the nutrition label deals with privacy too generically and doesn't take into account quirks from various industries (sensitive ones like healthcare and finance vs. less-sensitive ones like retail).

Cranor is also keen to address a question she was initially asked while participating in a Federal Trade Commission workshop on the topic of privacy policies a year ago. "Somebody asked me point blank, 'If nobody reads privacy policies, why are we bothering with them?'" she recalls. "What I told them, and what I've told a bunch of people since then, is that our goal isn't that everybody reads privacy policies all the time. Our goal is that when somebody has a question about privacy, that information is there for them and that they can quickly and easily access it. We hope that we're on our way to that."