19/07/2011 10:15 BST | Updated 18/09/2011 06:12 BST

Icons and Symbols - a way Forward for Privacy?

Last week a friend of mine signed up for a new app via his mobile phone. As usual he was asked to say he accepted all of the terms and conditions associated with the app, including its privacy policy. He was going to do what most of us do and simply click to say yes but prompted by me he asked for the words of the terms to be displayed. They occupied 66 pages.

Nobody reads 66 pages of anything on a mobile. Few people read very many pages on a full-sized screen. And in either place if what you are presented with is written in tight legalese the chances of anything being both read and understood are vanishing small.

So far so not surprising. However, bearing in mind that generally when we discuss these matters in the UK we are talking about averagely literate, averagely numerate, averagely intelligent, English-speaking adults with standard or reasonable eye sight, what about those very many people who live here, use mobile apps and the internet generally but for whom one or more of those attributes does not apply?

Step forward London City solicitors Speechly Bircham. They decided to investigate how children and young people saw the question of online privacy. Last Thursday they published the results of a survey they carried out on Data Protection Day in January of this year. A great video was also produced. It both summarised the key results of the survey and showed interviews with some of the children, young people and adults who had been involved.

Round of applause for Speechly Bircham and in particular for partner Robert Bond who leads in their data protection and IT law section.

For Bond and the firm, carrying out the survey was a corporate social responsibility initiative. We are all very much the beneficiaries of it. They have produced the largest ever data set showing UK children's and young people's knowledge of, practices and attitudes towards online privacy. The study also generated ideas about how to simplify key privacy and safety messages in a way which would make it easier for other children and young people to absorb them. Symbols and icons came up trumps, but it's not hard to see how they might also work for many other constituencies.

On Data Protection Day, the day of the survey, Speechly Bircham mobilised 135 presenters to deliver 112 sessions on online privacy at 82 primary and secondary schools in 16 different locations. The presenters stood up in front of over 6,200 children and young people ranging in ages from 9 to 19. The University of Plymouth was part of it, the BBC pitched in as did Barclays, Field Fisher Waterhouse and 110 law students. The UK and Irish Information and Data Protection Commissioners were in there somewhere. The current UK Commissioner has a star turn in the video. Phew! I'm getting a headache just thinking about the logistics.

Out of this effort came just over 4,100 completed questionnaires from the children and young people who had heard the presentations. Professor Andy Phippen of Plymouth University analysed the resulting data which form the cornerstone of the final report.

88% of the secondary school students were on Facebook, no shocks there then, but almost 40% of primary children were as well. Whereas a proportion of secondary pupils were likely to be below Facebook's lower age limit of 13, every single primary school pupil must have been. In second place as a social networking tool was MSN, now more correctly called Windows Live Messenger. Curiously Messenger seems to be used by pupils of secondary and primary age in almost equal proportions, though secondary has a slight edge. Again the same strictures about age limits apply.

As a product of a Jesuit school myself, I well recall their famous maxim "give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". Thankfully the Jesuits did not get their hands on me until I was eleven but they grasped something that remains eternally true. Good habits, and bad habits, start young.

One of the teachers who appeared in the video shown on the site made the same point. She said teaching children about online safety and privacy truly is a task that needs to be integrated into the curriculum in primary schools. By the time many reach secondary school they will be cyber veterans. Patterns of behaviour, good and bad, will already be set by then.

On the specifics of privacy policies 40% of the sample said they had read at least one on a web site or app they had used, but that still meant 60% never had. In a number of the videoed interviews the youngsters gave the same reasons for not reading the mountains of words as you might expect to hear uttered in any pub or other adult environment.

The timeliness of the Speechly Bircham-Plymouth study was highlighted by the near simultaneous release in the USA of some numbers put together by a company called ID Analytics. They specialise in dealing with identity theft. Their report suggested that each year 140,000 US children have their identities compromised on the internet. According to Tom Oscherwitz, chief privacy officer

"Child identity fraud poses complex challenges to consumers, businesses and regulators. Unfortunately, minors' identities are particularly appealing to fraudsters because their personal data is untainted, legitimate and less likely to be monitored for misuse."

The Speechly Bircham-Plymouth survey found the use of highly intuitive icons and graphics could either, without more, explain the essence of a point, or more probably at least alert you to something and provide a link to a place where you can find either a crisp summary, the Full Monty, or both.

I fear there always has to be the Full Monty somewhere. There will always be a need to give people the opportunity of reading everything, even if 99.999% of us never do. There's always going to be one that will.

To be honest I didn't quite get some of the designs for the icons and symbols the youngsters in the Speechly Bircham-Plymouth survey came up with but then I am, ahem, a little older than they are and anyway that's not quite the point. The point is they got the importance of the concept and like us older folk understood there had to be a better way of doing it. I know of only one other group who have been looking at this issue, a group of academics in Holland, although I understand within several online companies similar research is on going.

The UK Government and consumer groups need to pick up the baton that has been so elegantly fashioned by Speechly Bircham.