In the days after one of the most damning intelligence leaks since the birth of the Internet, polls were showing that average Americans felt sort of "meh" about the whole NSA-monitoring-our-calls-Skype-emails thing. But according to a new analysis from Annalect, a digital data and analytics firm, two months of ongoing discussion about online privacy have actually had major impacts on consumer behavior. Online consumers, riled by political sentiments or not, are changing their privacy and tracking settings—and if the trend continues, the advertising industry could be dinged in a significant way.
On June 10, nearly four days after journalist Glenn Greenwald published the Snowden scoop in the Guardian, a Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll found that 56% of Americans felt that NSA monitoring was a-okay. In fact, government monitoring could go even further, 45% said, if it prevented terrorist attacks. Seven weeks later, the Annalect study, which began as a longitudinal investigation into consumer awareness of online privacy in early 2013 (before the Snowden kerfuffle), shows that collective sentiment may have shifted—consumer concern about online privacy actually jumped from 48% to 57% between June and July.
"This jump is largely from unconcerned Internet users becoming concerned—not from the normal vacillation found among neutral Internet users," researchers wrote.
Perhaps more telling is what Annalect measured in behavioral changes. The percent of consumers who adjusted their browser settings and opted out of mobile tracking—in which advertisers collect behavioral data from Internet users' online interests and clicking patterns—jumped 12% and 7% respectively between the first quarter report and July.
Moreover, 37% of Internet users who identify themselves as "concerned" about online privacy took some form of action in response to news of the PRISM program, while 27% of previously "non-concerned" Internet users have altered their online behavior as well. More than 60% of Internet users also reported they do not feel they have control over their personal information online, and 48% said they didn't know how that information was being used.
In light of this information, it appears concerns about governmental monitoring have leaked over into the private sector, where increasingly sophisticated data-mining techniques have thrived for years with little oversight. Industry has come together to provide opt-out buttons on advertisements, but critics say that these measures seeking to give Internet users a degree of control over their personal information don't go far enough.
Cloud-computing industry experts have already estimated that because of the NSA's surveillance of cloud providers—along with the government's civil-liberties-trolling methods to get them to comply—more companies will move overseas. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has estimated that this will result in a loss of up to $35 billion for U.S. cloud providers over the next three years, while Forrester analyst James Staten puts the figure at $180 billion. The Annalect report, meanwhile, predicts that the advertising industry will also feel some dollar-value pain.
"If these trends continue, and Mozilla implements its plan for its Firefox browser to block most third-party cookies by default later this year, the ad industry’s ability to effectively use third-party cookies for marketing purposes will decrease," researchers noted. "This, in turn, may necessitate the need for the industry to develop other means to quantify digital business practices."
Hopefully, those practices necessitate more transparency than we have now.