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New software targets hard-to-understand privacy policies

The Privacy Icons browser add-on translates websites' privacy policies into nine easy-to-grasp categories

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Have you ever tried to read a website's privacy policy only to give up after slogging through paragraphs and paragraphs of dense, lawyerly language? Privacy-focused companies Disconnect and TRUSTe have released a new browser add-on that attempts to translate those policies into easy-to-understand terms.

The companies' Privacy Icons software, released Monday for a pay-what-you-want fee, analyzes websites' privacy policies, breaking them down into nine categories, including location tracking, do-not-track browser request compliance and data retention policies.

The software then displays, as a browser add-on, nine color-coded icons, with green, yellow and red icons signifying the level of concern about the website's privacy policy in each area.

More transparency on privacy policies is needed, said Casey Oppenheim, co-CEO at Disconnect, which also makes software that blocks online tracking requests. The average website privacy policy averages more than 2,400 words, takes 10 minutes to read and is written at a university-student reading level, according to the TRUSTe Privacy Index.

"The end goal is to help individuals regain control of their personal information online," he said. "As a means to that end, we definitely hope that this project will inspire companies to improve their data practices and compete, even more, on the basis of privacy and security."

The software, available now for recent versions of Chrome, Firefox and Opera and with versions for Internet Explorer, Safari, and mobile browsers available soon, attempts to simplify website privacy policies.

"In the case of the Privacy Icons we hope to make data practices more transparent, so that people can make more informed choices when it comes to visiting websites and using services," Oppenheim said. "If a person feels comfortable sharing all their information with a certain site after seeing it has all red icons, that's better than the alternative, which is sharing all their information without any understanding that's happening."

While more transparency may be good news for Web users concerned about privacy, the bad news is that many of the Web's top destinations get some red marks from Privacy Icons.

Google.com, the world's most-visited website, according to Alexa's February rankings, received red marks in the data retention category, for no stated policy on when it deletes user data, and in the precise location category, for tracking users' geolocation.

Facebook, the No. 2 most-visited site, gets red marks for precise location and for expected use, for not disclosing whether data it collects about visitors is used in ways other than that they would reasonably expect.

Yahoo.com, the No. 4 website, gets a red mark for expected use. Twitter, No. 10, gets red marks in expected use and precise location, while Amazon.com, No. 11, gets red marks in four of the nine privacy categories, and grey marks, meaning the information is not available, in four more.

Representatives of those five websites didn't respond to requests for comment on the ratings. Websites that dispute the Privacy Icons ratings can contact Disconnect to explain their concerns.

Privacy Icons evolved from a Mozilla-led working group, in which TRUSTe and Disconnect participated, starting in 2010. Other participants in the Mozilla privacy workshops included the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the World Wide Web Consortium.

Evan Greer, campaign manager for Fight for the Future, the advocacy group behind the antisurveillance Reset the Net campaign, praised the new software.

"The single most important thing we need right now in the fight to defend our online privacy is simple tools that everyday people can use to protect themselves," Greer said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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