Researchers call this the privacy paradox: normally sane people have inconsistent and contradictory impulses and opinions when it comes to their safeguarding their own private information.
Now some new research is beginning to document and quantify the privacy paradox. In a talk presented at the Security and Human Behavior Workshop here in Boston this week, Carnegie Mellon behavioral economist George Loewenstein previewed a soon-to-be-published research study he conducted with two colleagues.
Their findings: Our privacy principles are wobbly. We are more or less likely to open up depending on who is asking, how they ask and in what context.
In one interesting experiment, students who were provided strong promises of confidentiality were less forthcoming about personal details than students who weren’t provided such promises. The researchers explained this behavior as based on the fact that when an issue is raised in people’s minds, they think about it more and are likely to be more concerned about it. Ironically, promising people that their privacy will be protected actually makes them think more about the dangers of their privacy being breached.
There is indeed a growing body of research that examines why people frequently state in polls that they value privacy highly yet in practice trade their privacy away for trinkets or minor increases in convenience. The work of Professor Alessandro Acquisti explores some of the reasons why people might not make rational decisions regarding privacy despite their desire to protect it.
I have also written about this in my new book, UNDERSTANDING PRIVACY (Harvard University Press, May 2008). In particular, I argue that looking at expectations of privacy is the wrong approach toward understanding privacy:
If a more empirical approach to determining reasonable expectations of privacy were employed, how should the analysis be carried out? Reasonable expectations could be established by taking a poll. But there are several difficulties with such an approach. First, should the poll be local or national or worldwide? Different communities will likely differ in their expectations of privacy. Second, people’s stated preferences often differ from their actions. Economists Alessandro Acquisti and Jens Grossklags observe that “recent surveys, anecdotal evidence, and experiments have highlighted an apparent dichotomy between privacy attitudes and actual behavior. . . . [I]ndividuals are willing to trade privacy for convenience or to bargain the release of personal information in exchange for relatively small rewards.” This disjunction leads Strahilevitz to argue that what people say means less than what they do. “Behavioral data,” he contends, “is thus preferable to survey data in privacy.”
But care must be used in interpreting behavior because several factors can affect people’s decisions about privacy. Acquisti and Grossklags point to the problem of information asymmetries, when people lack adequate knowledge of how their personal information will be used, and bounded rationality, when people have difficulty applying what they know to complex situations. Some privacy problems shape behavior. People often surrender personal data to companies because they perceive that they do not have much choice. They might also do so because they lack knowledge about the potential future uses of the information. Part of the privacy problem in these cases involves people’s limited bargaining power respecting privacy and inability to assess the privacy risks. Thus looking at people’s behavior might present a skewed picture of societal expectations of privacy.