June 14, 2021

New Study, Browser Extension Help Users Understand Opt-Out Options

From the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science/CyLab:

Recent work from Carnegie Mellon University CyLab researchers has shown that machine learning techniques can automatically extract and classify some of these opt-out choices. The study, presented at last year’s Web Conference, also introduces Opt-Out Easy, a browser plug-in that automatically extracts opt-out choices from privacy policies and presents them to users in a way that’s easy to use. The plug-in is available for free download.

“Different privacy regulations grant users the right to revoke how their data can be used by companies,” said CyLab’s Norman Sadeh, a professor in the School of Computer Science and the principal investigator on the study. “But as it stands, most websites don’t offer users easy and practical access to these choices, effectively depriving them of these rights.”

In their study, Sadeh’s team trained a machine learning algorithm to scan privacy policies and identify language and links related to opt-out choices. They ran their algorithm on 7,000 of the most popular websites and found that more than 3,600 of them (~51%) offer zero opt-out choices. A little over 800 (~11%) provide just one opt-out hyperlink.

“Our study aimed to provide an in-depth overview of whether popular websites allowed users the ability to opt out of some data collection and use practices,” Sadeh said. “In addition, we also wanted to develop a practical solution to help users access opt-out choices made available to them when such choices are present.”

The team developed Opt-Out Easy in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information. By clicking on the plugin’s icon, users receive a list of opt-out links found in the privacy policy of the website they are visiting, allowing them to opt out of analytics, for example, or limit marketing emails.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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