Consumer Reports’ Digital Lab Releases Two Studies on Digital Privacy and Online Tracking

Washington, DC –  The Digital Lab at Consumer Reports, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, released two new studies on digital privacy, data collection, and online tracking:  Understanding the Scope of Data Collection by Major Technology Platforms and The Evolution of Consumer Attitudes Towards Online Tracking.

The first study sought a comprehensive understanding of the scope of data collection by some of the biggest technology companies. To develop a baseline understanding of these companies’ data practices, CR combined a technical review of data collected through smartphone applications with a detailed review of public documentation about internet companies’ data behaviors.

The examination of smartphone data included 426 Android apps from 15 major internet platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to measure the collection and sharing practices of personal information. The study found that:

  • 24 apps collected the WiFi router’s MAC address, potentially as a workaround for accessing geolocation without triggering a permission request;
  • 24 apps transmitted the device’s phone number; and
  • 19 apps transmitted email addresses collected from the device. 

The policy review included 140 primary sources (such as privacy policies, license agreements, FAQs, and privacy controls and dashboards), and over 120 secondary sources (including news articles and academic papers from the 15 companies). The data CR collected showed that most of these companies engage in far reaching data practices and did not describe clear limitations on their data collection and use.

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports and author of the report, said, “We tried to develop a  better understanding of the scope of data collection being conducted by the tech industry. The findings were alarming because of the scope of information these companies collect on unsuspecting people. The internet was built on principles of trust, decentralization, and anonymity, but as advertising has become the economic engine of the internet, companies have dramatically expanded their data collection practices while providing less transparency about what they’re really doing.”

The second study conducted a review of research into consumer perceptions of online tracking from the period of 1995 to 2019, using published journals, articles, studies and survey results from Consumer Reports, the Pew Research Center, and others on consumer privacy and tracking technologies. The study found that:

  • In the current environment, users are more aware of the existence of tracking than they are aware of how this tracking is done;
  • People have few tools to control tracking online, and the limited kinds of consumer rights remain largely the same since the late 1990s; and
  • Consumers have believed for decades that they have more rights and protection online than they actually have.

“For as long as consumers have been using the internet, they have struggled to protect their personal information online,” said Katie McInnis, policy counsel for Consumer Reports and author of the report, said. “Unfortunately, the initial findings of this research show that awareness of tracking and the techniques by which one is tracked do not on their own empower consumers to better control their data.” 

Both studies are available for download at: https://digital-lab.consumerreports.org/publications/.

Media Contact: Cyrus Rassool, cyrus.rassool@consumer.org