“Privacy policies are legal documents that organizations use to disclose how they collect, analyze, share and secure their online users’ personal data,” said Mukund Srinath, doctoral student in the College of IST and lead author of the paper. “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.”
The researchers conducted a large-scale investigation of the availability of privacy policies by crawling millions of English-language websites to identify when privacy policies were unavailable. They used the capture-recapture technique to estimate the frequencies of the failure modes and the overall unavailability of privacy policies on the web.
“We borrowed the technique that ecologists might use for animals in the wild,” said Pranav Venkit, doctoral student in the College of IST and co-author of the paper. “They go into a forest of bears, capture a small sample, tag them and send them back into the wild. They go back the next day and capture another set. The unseen versus the previously seen bears enable the ecologists to estimate the bear population.”
“Regulators cannot keep up,” Srinath said. “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.”
Promoting transparency and accountability in online data privacy practices is critical to the continued growth and development of the digital economy, according to co-author Shomir Wilson, assistant professor of IST, director of the Human Language Technologies (HLT) Lab at Penn State and adviser to Srinath and Venkit.
Mukund Srinath et al, Privacy Lost and Found, Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on Document Engineering 2023 (2023). DOI: 10.1145/3573128.3604902
Pennsylvania State University
Most websites do not publish privacy policies, researchers say (2023, October 27)
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