People Are Concerned About Privacy. But What Kind Of Privacy?

People Are Concerned About Privacy. But What Kind Of Privacy?

We hear all the time that people worry about loss of privacy, and there’s good reason to believe it. But what, exactly, do people fear?  There are different kinds of information that people think is private:  Financial and tax-related; sexual; medical, psychiatric, and psychological; criminal; educational; associational, political, religious, and voting; communications, what they read; business secrets; etc.

I’m rummaging through the blogosphere for the past six months, published journalism for the last five years, published cases for the last five years, seeking mentions of each of these types of private information and using search term variants (e.g., “school records” as well as “education records”), using as a hypothesis that the quantity of mentions reflects the comparative level of concern.  Obviously, there are statistical questions here.  For example, do bloggers, journalists, and litigants reflect the population as a whole?  Maybe not.  On the other hand, where but the blogosphere can a researcher work with a statistical sample of nearly 950,000 data points per day?     

So, today, let’s start with some blogosphere baselines to give us a sense of proportion:  

Blog Posts:

The most frequent blog postings are diary entries, accounting for 20-30% of all posts.  Once people turn their attention outside themselves, the second is movies and TV, averaging around four or five percent.  “Obama” showed up on average in about 0.75% of all blog posts in the last six months, although he spiked to nearly two percent when he was awarded the Nobel prize in October 2009.  “Brad Pitt” and “Angelina Jolie” averaged about 0.04% in the same time period, with Pitt peaking to 0.09% and Jolie to almost 0.08%, in late January 2010, when it was reported they would divorce during the Screen Actors Guild awards.

“Privacy” appeared in about 0.14% of all blogs during that six months, and on February 11, 2010, spiked to nearly 0.25%, in part based on fears concerning Google Buzz.  If bloggers talk about privacy 20% as much as they talk about the President of the United States, and about three times as often as Brad Pitt, then privacy is a big deal.  And that means that this bit of research is worthwhile.

So, here’s the plan:  Next time, I’ll start examining published articles mentioning the different types of private information.  Then, I’ll look at lawsuits.  When I get through those, I’ll examine the types of entities most interested in each type of information—government agencies, insurers, marketers, identity thieves, etc.; and if I come up with good information about those entities, I’ll then try to determine whether the types of information people most fear intrusion into, are the types of information that the entities most seek.  Finally, I’ll take a macro look at current legal protections — statutes, regulations, privacy policies, and the like — to see whether they reflect people’s real world concerns, or whether they’re no more accurate than a funhouse mirror. 


  1 The number of blog posts indexed by Nielsen’s in the 24 hours before 1:28 p.m. on February 12, 2010 was 947,303.
  2 Source:  Nielsen’s trend application.