And the most trusted company is ... a bank?

American Express tops list of most trusted companies for privacy again, while Facebook makes the grade for the first time

Considering all the bad news surrounding financial institutions these days, it might seem somewhat counterintuitive for a bank to end up topping any list involving consumer trust.

Yet for the third year running, American Express Co. has been voted the most trusted company for protecting consumer privacy in a poll of about 6,500 consumers conducted by Ponemon Institute LLC.

The survey asked consumers to list up to five companies that they trusted the most for honoring privacy and data protection commitments, and as many as five companies they trusted the least. Survey participants were asked to rank their choices based on their perception of how a company might be collecting, using, protecting and sharing personal information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and other data.

To arrive at the final rankings, Ponemon considered the total number of times a company was ranked first for privacy as well as the total number of overall positive and negative mentions.

American Express topped the list of 221 companies that received at least 20 positive ratings. Others making the top 10 list include IBM, Amazon, eBay, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble.

Search giant Google Inc., which was ranked 10th on the list last year, failed to make the cut this time around. Social networking site Facebook made its first appearance despite the brouhaha last year surrounding its Beacon service.

The list of most trusted companies is mostly the same as last year's and reflects a remarkable consistency in customer perceptions about corporate privacy practices, said Larry Ponemon, chairman of the institute.

"Even though there was some movement in the list, it does appear that there is a steady group of companies that seem to do well," Ponemon said. "It seems like companies that have good privacy programs have an ability to withstand problems" that might otherwise affect consumer perceptions, he said.

He noted Hewlett-Packard Co., which this year took sixth place after dropping to No. 16 last year following the negative publicity surrounding its pretexting practices and a boardroom scandal.

On the whole, financial services companies that were both on last year's and this year's lists dropped in rankings, while technology giants Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and HP improved their positions.

For the most part, the companies on the list all have good brand recognition and are "fairly explicit in what their privacy policies are about," said Fran Maier, CEO of TrustE, an online privacy certification firm and sponsor of the survey. The fact that consumers keep selecting more or less the same companies in each annual Ponemon survey reveals that they are living up to a standard that consumers expect on the privacy front, she said.

Facebook's presence is somewhat surprising and suggests that consumers responded favorably to the company's mea culpa over its Beacon ad service, Maier said. Beacon was launched in November 2007 as part of the Facebook Ads platform and was designed to track the activities of Facebook users on more than 44 participating Web sites, and to report those activities back to the users' Facebook friends.

The company withdrew the service after an outpouring of protest. The growing control that users have over their privacy settings when using Facebook might also explain the company's presence on the Ponemon list.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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