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The GDPR privacy law happened, and all I got were these lousy emails

If a privacy policy changes and no one reads it, does it really matter?

Your inboxes might be flooded with privacy policy emails. Have you read any of them?
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"We're updating our Privacy Policy." "Updates to Our Privacy Policy." "Announcing updates to our privacy policy." "Your data privacy: Please take action!"

The list of updated privacy policies in my inbox goes on and on -- and if you've signed up for any online service in the last decade, these emails are most likely in your inbox, too. 

It's no coincidence, this sudden surge of activity by tech companies. The flood of privacy policy updates is actually coming because of a new European Union law kicking into effect. The General Data Protection Regulation aims to change how tech companies collect and use data from millions of people every day.

The data privacy law, which passed in 2016, allowed two years for companies to whip themselves into shape. Even with all that time to make their adjustments and notify users, the majority of these emails came in the run-up to Friday, the GDPR's deadline.

The crux of the new privacy policies follows the same idea: GDPR now requires companies to explicitly ask to collect your data and allow you to delete any information they collect on you.

So, with this rush of new legalese storming everyone's inboxes, we need to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading this?

And even though the GDPR now requires privacy policies to be written in "clear and plain language," as it turns out, they've gotten even more complicated.

The Wall Street Journal discovered that privacy policies for Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all actually became lengthier in their GDPR-compliant updates. Experts told The Washington Post these changes would likely make privacy policies more complicated, despite the EU's regulations.

A reason these updated policies are much longer than their predecessors could be that companies have been rushing to meet the deadline, said Adrienne Ehrhardt, a partner at the law firm Michael Best, which is focused on privacy and cybersecurity.

"So, understandably, the approach may be to put in all the required information, and being transparent may equate to overinforming, which leads to very long privacy notices," she said.

It's been a rough few months for online privacy. Maybe you saw how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to endure 10 hours of grilling by members of Congress last month, or caught his awkward moments in the EU Parliament earlier this week. That was all because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that came to light in March: In a nutshell, the personal data of 87 million Facebook users got shared when it shouldn't have.

Zuckerberg took a stab, at least, at telling EU lawmakers how Facebook would comply with the GDPR.

Facebook isn't alone, of course. A privacy advocacy group in the UK sued Google for $4.3 billion over collecting browser data without people's consent -- the data harvesting happened from 2011 to 2012, but the lawsuit just went to trial on May 21.

But back to you and those privacy notices.

A 2008 study found that it would take average Americans 244 hours a year to read through privacy policies for all the services they use. It's likely that would take even longer with the GDPR's lengthier changes, especially with the influx of new tech in the last 10 years. The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that half of Americans don't even know what a privacy policy is.

"Let's be honest, few Americans can decipher or understand what this contract means," Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, said during a May 16 Senate hearing with Cambridge Analytica's whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

With that in mind, experts are skeptical that anyone is really taking the time to dig through all these updates.

"I don't expect many consumers will read a single privacy policy update, let alone the dozens that are showing up in our inboxes over the last couple of weeks," Brian Vecci, a technical evangelist at data protection firm Varonis, said. "But it's a good reminder that every email they get is another company that has at least some of their personal data."

If you do skip these updated privacy policies though, you'd be unaware of all the new data protections that GDPR gives. Here's a quick cheat sheet. You're now able to:

  • Ask a website to delete data that it holds on you
  • Download all the data that a company has stored on you
  • Find out how that company is using your data

Any firm that doesn't comply could face fines of up to 4 percent of its global profits.

Just because no one is reading though a privacy policy, doesn't mean there isn't any real change, experts say. Even if only a small handful of people are reading it, they would be able to highlight all the issues that come with it, said Jeffrey Sanchez, the security and privacy managing director at consulting firm Protiviti.

"We have seen examples of people using social media to highlight companies with inappropriate privacy policies," he said.

Erik Charlton, CEO of smart light switch company Noon Home, was on the founding team at Nest and helped write the smart device maker's original privacy policy. He believes that the unread privacy updates still hold weight. Even if consumers aren't reading them line by line, he said, the new regulations will give them a better chance to control their data.

"I think the biggest value is a sense of confidence that they'll have a recourse should they need it," Charlton said.

While he has faith that these updated policies are protecting people, he's skeptical people are looking through the fine print.

"There have been a slew of new user agreements in the past few days, and I'm curious who's reading all of these updates."

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