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Online privacy concerns a persistent problem for businesses, consumers

The editors at have written a lot in recent months about online privacy concerns for businesses and their customers, and it appears global increases in hacking and data theft may finally be pushing folks to take positive steps to secure their data.

The combination of an increasing number of data breaches, the growth of cloud computing, the proliferation of location-based services and the expansion of regulatory requirement is forcing organizations to review or completely revise their privacy policies before the end of 2012, according to new research from Gartner Inc.

These findings echo results of a McAfee Inc. survey that found only about one-third of online consumers believe that most websites are safe for shopping, an 11% decrease since McAfee conducted the survey in 2009. Eighty-four percent of the 605 respondents said that they have some level of concern when providing personal information online, and only 6% said they do not worry about security on the Internet.

Gartner notes that, while privacy-related regulatory changes are likely imminent, they should not distract privacy officers from pursing their own more immediate privacy strategies. Most regulatory changes will continue to evolve over the long term, the analysts note.

Despite the increased attention to privacy, obstacles will surely remain. Privacy programs will be chronically underfunded for the next two years, so privacy officers will need to build and maintain strong relationships with corporate counsel, lines of business, HR, IT security, IT operations and application development teams, suggests Gartner’s Carsten Casper.

Casper also suggests establishing a relationship with regulatory authorities and the privacy advocacy community as a way to help maintain privacy standards.

And what about those businesses that use the nebulous nature of online privacy rules to their advantage? This week, the Wall Street Journal profiled “supercookies” that are used to track users’ Web-browsing tendencies. The supercookies are capable of re-creating users’ profiles after people delete regular cookies. Due to a lack of federal regulations, the online ad industry has been left to police itself, and sometimes privacy concerns take a back seat to commerce.

Until the feds establish hard rules on online privacy to protect personal information, it will be up to the businesses to police themselves and protect customer information. As the McAfee study shows, consumers may end up decreasing their online purchasing activity because of online privacy concerns. Businesses will have to prove that they are doing all they can to protect their customer’s information, or risk their reputation — and bottom line.

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