Demystifying the Privacy Policy

It’s been jokingly called the biggest lie on the internet, but failure to read the terms and conditions of a website is really no laughing matter. With only 7% of survey respondents claiming that they read the full terms before clicking “I have read and understand these terms and condition,” it still somehow comes as a surprise to people who later fall victim to  what they think are privacy violations.

In reality, the shock actually stems from the actual rights they signed away by agreeing to the terms when they initiated their accounts. What many people may think is a violation of their privacy actually comes down to not understanding what permissions they granted to a website when they checked the box and clicked the “accept” button.

And it’s no wonder. The legalese of the terms and conditions is often a head-scratcher for most casual internet users. In one now-famous example, the disjointed legal wording even confused the company who wrote it! Amtrak created a really innovative program that would allow writers to have free fares in order to ride a train while writing their books; unfortunately, the confusing legal wording unintentionally granted all copyright for any material submitted for application to their writers’ residency program to become the sole property of Amtrak.

That’s the kind of privacy issue that a new web tool is working to avoid. UsablePrivacy has built a website that lets the internet public read a “translation,” of sorts, of a website’s agreement, and provides visuals of the privacy concerns within those jargon-filled terms and conditions.

For each website included in UsablePrivacy’s web database, the terms and privacy policy appear in a box on the screen. The font color indicates which type of privacy concern that a particular sentence addresses, such as third-party data sharing on its users, or selling your information to an advertiser. It could even indicate that a particular clause does not hold that third-party to a liable standard for privacy protection, meaning that the company who bought your information will not be required to prove how secure your information will be.

UsablePrivacy also shows you which sites’ conditions allow for tracking your internet use within that site, which terms and conditions have had policy changes (and what those changes are), whether or not you’re agreeing to have your information collected and stored, and more. There are even provisions for outlining international policies that many people would not be aware of simply because they weren’t aware that the base of operations for that website falls under a different country’s jurisdiction.

The web tool has been a collaboration between teams at Carnegie Mellon University, Fordham University, Stanford University, and the National Science Foundation, but they are always looking for more input and support. To get involved with the UsablePrivacy project or to be kept up-to-date on new additions to the site, contact the organization directly through their website.

 

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