Privacy Tool Lets Users Quickly Rank Websites on Privacy Policies

Website privacy policies, like end-user agreements, have become a morass of confusion that offer little in the way of clarity about what sites are and aren’t tracking.

A new tool and website launched today purports to clear some of the fog around this issue.

PrivacyChoice has analyzed more than a thousand of the most trafficked web sites to score them on a scale of 1 to 100 in their collection and use of personal data, as well as the collection and use practices of the third-party companies that they allow to track users on their sites.

The tool’s algorithm gives points to sites for various activities — such as 30 points if the site does not share personal data such as names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers, 10 points if the site deletes data promptly when a user closes an account and 5 points if the site notifies users when government agencies request user data from them. Third-party companies — such as advertisers — receive 20 points if they don’t associate identification data with your web activity, 5 points if they don’t collect data on sensitive areas such as health history and financial records.

Users can visit and search for specific websites to see their scores. They can also install a free browser plug-in that provides a real-time privacy score at the top of each website they visit based on what the site is collecting when they visit it. Users can opt in to share that information with PrivacyChoice to allow the service to expand and improve its algorithm.

Jim Brock, the founder of PrivacyChoice, said the system does not store user information.

“We’ve engineered our system so we cannot go back and retrace your [online] steps,” he said. “We don’t save IP address information at all. We don’t plant cookies that could track the user. We’ve been very careful to make sure there’s no way we can go in and figure out what your browser history is.”

The average score for sites is 71, which The New York Times received. Fox News received a higher score of 84, along with, while The Washington Post got 82. CNN, however, has a score of 43, while received only a score of 42.

Brock said the service is as much for website owners as for consumers, since it allows web sites to see what third parties are doing on their sites and then pressure their ad and widget servers to change their policies so the website can increase its score.

“We show this to websites and the first question they ask is how do I get my score up,” Brock said. “We tell them you have to talk to the people who track on your site and tell them, ‘We need you to delete data, to be more explicit about what you do with data.’

“We’re hoping this whole feedback loop between the websites and the tracking companies will cause these scores to go up.”

PrivacyChoice plans to launch another service within a few weeks that will use an algorithm to analyze privacy policies that users submit, using keyword searches and other parameters, in order to categorize the policies quickly for users.

Homepage art: Wiertz S├ębastien/Flickr