05/04/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

Consumer Reports Privacy Survey Rings Alarm Bells

Throughout much of the 2000s, we lived through what some have described as a techno-panic on the issue of online predators. Many a nightly news program led with scary images, stories and reports of dangerous pedophiles stalking neighborhoods having first tracked your kids through their online profiles and pictures. Programs such as To Catch a Predator fueled that fear even though good, academic research demonstrated that only 6 percent of child sexual abuse cases involved the internet.

Fast forward to 2012 and while the stranger danger stories have greatly diminished, we appear to be having what Jeff Jarvis terms a "moral panic" about privacy on social networks. Consumer Reports' recent survey entitled, "Facebook & Your Privacy: Who Sees Your Data on the Biggest Social Network" raises some very important issues about the use of the details and data of our daily lives and how we are tracked in both the real world and across cyberspace. The Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, advocates for a national privacy law and seeks more transparency from Facebook and the other social networks.

Unfortunately, the authors have been less than transparent in how they've reached their numbers. They state that:
• 39.3 million have identified a family member in their profile
• 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall
• 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profile
• 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall

These figures and more are based on survey of 2,002 households of which 1,340 are active on Facebook. So a third of respondents on a survey on Facebook aren't on the social network. Next, they extrapolate from the percentages to estimate so-called national totals. Remarkably, Consumer Reports, whose tag line is "Trust Lives Here" was unwilling to release the questionnaire upon which these figures are based. Not exactly transparent.

Then there's the issue of the circumstances in which the respondents are sharing their info. "It's all about context. We don't know from these results whether the folks sharing their personal information are doing so with a tight network of friends and family or the wider world," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Indeed, it could be argued that these figures represent some good news. The fact that (an extrapolated) 2.3 million people "liked" a page regarding sexual orientation points to growing tolerance and acceptance. Or that 7.7 million demonstrated their religious affiliation by liking various church-related profiles seems like a positive thing to report. And as for the estimated 4.6 million folks who expressed their love online to another, it all depends on the critical question of context -- were these postings shared closely or with the whole wide web. The survey is silent on this.

Our sense of privacy is certainly shifting and we must remain vigilant and critical of companies, governments and of NGOs who store large quantities of our data. But it is disappointing that a "trusted" body such as the Consumers Union, a registered 501(c) 3, charitable organization, should use opaque methods to make a point. Let's take a more reasoned and transparent approach to this critical issue rather than create this year's scare story. And let's encourage peer-reviewed, academic studies that are open for all to see to study this vitally important subject.

(Full transparency: My organization, the Family Online Safety Institute, receives funding from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and a number of other Internet companies.)