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Older Adults Wary About Their Privacy Online

Companies increase transparency about data collection to ease those concerns

spinner image symbols of people who are all online some in shadows and some in plain view
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Andy Reinhardt is comfortable shopping online, browsing the web and using apps.

Reinhardt, 60, spent a chunk of his career as a journalist covering tech. But Reinhardt draws the line with smart speakers.

"I just find them very creepy,” the San Francisco resident says. “I'm convinced that they are listening all the time, not just when you shout, ‘Hey Alexa.’ I've already had countless incidents where I'm discussing something highly unusual in the vicinity of my phone and suddenly started seeing ads related to the subject on my Facebook timeline.”

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Reinhardt isn't the only member of his generation skittish about tech privacy. A fresh online survey of 2,807 adults ages 18 and older from AARP Research reveals that 34 percent of people age 50 and older cited privacy concerns as a top barrier to adopting new technology, behind only cost (38 percent) and lack of knowledge (37 percent). More than 8 in 10 (83 percent) indicated they are not confident that what they do online remains private.

"So many of those privacy concerns are absolutely valid,” says Gennie Gebhart, a privacy researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation nonprofit advocacy group. But “regardless of age or experience level, I never want those concerns to stop people from living their lives, from completing basic tasks and from accessing basic conveniences,” which may be increasingly necessary during the pandemic. She points to the troubles of people who are uncomfortable using the internet trying to arrange a COVID-19 test or vaccine appointment.

2021 Tech Trends
and the 50-Plus

• Read the entire report, which looks at the 10 biggest trends for older adults.

• See AARP’s privacy policy,  online and otherwise

Often people who work in tech avoid delving too far into tech. The first thing retired tech marketer and angel investor Deb McAlister-Holland, 67, did when she and her husband bought a new house this past June in Longview, Texas, was to remove the Ring doorbellsmart thermostat, automatic sprinkler controls, motion detectors and cameras. Then they disconnected some odd wiring that connected cameras to something she couldn't identify.

"I know how to protect my data online. But I also know how easily always-on devices can be hacked. There is no easy way to protect a refrigerator or doorbell. Manufacturers collect a wealth of data from these devices, and consumers have no idea what is being collected,” she says.

Apple requiring developers to ask to track

What is being collected fuels a “large and opaque” $227 billion industry, according to a recent Day in the Life of Your Data report for consumers from Apple.

The average app that people use every day has six embedded trackers, Apple's report states. Data brokers use the data they harvest to assign attributes to users and bucket them into hyper-detailed market segments.

Beginning with the imminent iOS 14.5 software update and software for other Apple products, Apple is requiring app developers to seek users’ permission to track them across apps and websites owned by other companies. In the App Store, developers also must provide consumer transparency on their data collection and privacy practices on the company's product pages.

“Protecting consumers’ privacy and security is critical. Consumers should control when and how their personal data may be used, and privacy and security protections should be embedded into devices," says Susanna Montezemolo, policy and integration director at AARP. "Consumers also need better transparency about privacy and security practices so they can make informed choices.”

Amazon, which created the Alexa digital assistant, told AARP that it has privacy in mind.

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"For all customers, but especially people who are aging, Alexa can be a driving force for independence,” an Amazon spokesperson says. “Privacy is central to keeping the trust of our customers. It's why we've built visual indicators so customers know when Alexa is processing their request, designed microphone and camera controls, and give customers the ability to review and delete voice recordings.” For more details, the company points customers to its Alexa Privacy Hub.

You can go online, and limit your risk

Terry Fernsworth, 53, who works in software support in the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of those people who doesn't use Alexa or Apple's Siri. He doesn't bank online either.

"I use technology but am cautious how I use it,” he says.

What's more, Fernsworth surfs the web with DuckDuckGo, a browser that says it doesn't track people online, store personal information or follow folks with ads. That's especially true if he is searching health issues. He also favors stringent privacy legislation.

But Fernsworth does buy things through Amazon and eBay, tracks his bike rides through the Strava app for runners and cyclists, and shares his location when he needs to use Apple Maps.

"I think it's a matter of what you get in return for the information that you are giving them and what is that trade-off,” Fernsworth says. “There are definitely situations where I do kind of think this is worth it."

Privacy policies’ fine print a roadblock

Not everyone's willing to accept the trade-offs. The AARP survey found that few people see the value in exchanging personal data for personalization benefits that extend beyond cash rewards or other quick financial gains. Well under half the respondents, 43 percent, understand the small print where privacy policies are typically spelled out in legalese, assuming they're even read. The presence of a privacy policy doesn't mean a website is not sharing personal information without your permission, and only 53 percent of respondents are aware that advertising agencies are the “third party” in such online privacy policy agreements.

"It seems like everything is getting hacked all the time,” says Lyn Clark, 72, a retired dancer and choreographer in Benicia, California, explaining why she embraces modern tech gingerly. Clark doesn't have a smart speaker, doesn't bank online and is using a flip phone. She occasionally pays for things she buys online via PayPal but doesn't feel good about it. “I worry whenever I use it.”

Clark allows herself a limited presence on Twitter and Facebook.

"I think more people would be more comfortable with [social media] if there were easier ways to get out of it. You can [choose to] just not go on Facebook anymore, but your information is still there."

Weigh pros, cons and be wary

Gebhart at the Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends finding a middle ground by putting together a privacy and security plan that feels right for you. Figure out what you want to do and weigh it against what you are worried about.

She warns people of "phishing” attacks, those links, emails and phone numbers that are pretending to represent something they are not, often a financial entity. Clicking those links or calling the number can lead to identity theft or other dire consequences.

Mitchell Kurtz, 71, a retired teacher and coach in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, signed up for Norton LifeLock to help protect against identity theft. But when he received a suspicious email that was purportedly from LifeLock he called the company. Sure enough, it was a scam.

"Here's the company that is supposed to protect my identify theft, and they're being scammed,” Kurtz says.

Gebhart tells people to install security software updates when they become available.

"Brush your teeth. Wash your hands. Update your software,” she says. She also strongly recommends not using the same passwords every place you log in.

"Nothing will ever be perfectly secure or perfectly private,” Gebhart says. “But it can be more secure and more private, and that's all that we're trying to do."

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA TodayBusinessWeekU.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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