UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An alarming study by Penn State University researchers is revealing the lack of online privacy policies covering the vast majority of websites. Their study shows that only one-third of online organizations make their privacy policies available for review.
“Privacy policies are legal documents that organizations use to disclose how they collect, analyze, share and secure their online users’ personal data,” explains study lead Mukund Srinath, a doctoral student in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). “Privacy policies are often the only source of information regarding what happens to users’ personal information online. The availability of privacy policies and the ability of users to understand them are fundamental to ensuring that individuals can make informed decisions about their personal information.”
However, despite these regulations, Penn State researchers found that most organizations are not in compliance.
To arrive at these conclusions, researchers conducted a large-scale investigation, crawling millions of English-language websites to identify when privacy policies were unavailable. They employed a technique called “capture-recapture,” similar to how ecologists estimate animal populations in the wild. This method allowed them to estimate the overall unavailability of privacy policies on the web.
“Regulators cannot keep up,” explains Srinath. “They are often overwhelmed by the numbers of privacy policies on the web and forced to rely on user complaints or compliance self-certification to prompt investigations of missing or ineffective privacy policies.”
Study co-author Shomir Wilson, assistant professor of IST and director of the Human Language Technologies (HLT) Lab at Penn State, emphasized the importance of transparency and accountability in online data privacy practices.
The National Science Foundation supported this research. The study was presented at the 23rd Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on Document Engineering at the University of Limerick in Ireland.
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