Our Paradoxical Attitudes Toward Privacy

Bits - Technology - New York Times Blog - July 2, 2008
Brad Stone

From bits.blogs.nytimes.com

We all cherish our privacy. Then we go and divulge everything about ourselves on Facebook, sprinkle our Social Security number like pixie dust across the Web and happily load up on tracking devices like GPS navigators and cellphones.

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, Leslie John and Alessandro Acquisti.

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.

The scientists conducted several surveys of college students, asking them to provide an e-mail address and then indicate whether they had ever engaged in a list of wayward, or in some cases illegal, activities.

In one experiment, one group of students was given a strong assurance that none of the information they divulged on the survey would be revealed. That should make them more forthcoming, right? Actually, the opposite was true. When the issue of confidentiality was raised, participants clammed up. For example, 25 percent of the students who were given a strong assurance of confidentiality admitted to having copied someone else’s homework. Among those given no assurance of confidentiality, more than half admitted to it.

The assurances, the researchers theorized, raise “issues of privacy that might not otherwise figure prominently in people’s minds.” In other words, the less people think about privacy (and sitting in an empty room staring at the computer, who does?), the more they lower their guard.

In another experiment, some students were presented with an official university Web site and asked to complete an on-screen survey about whether they had performed certain disreputable acts. Another set of students was presented with the same questions, but on an informal-looking site with the headline “How BAD are U??”, complete with a graphic of a smiling devil.

Which site would you feel more comfortable giving salacious details of your life to?

People answering questions on the devil’s page were significantly more likely to admit to having engaged in some illicit behaviors, including trying cocaine.

Creating an informal online atmosphere, it seems, encourages self-revelation, even though an unprofessional site is probably more likely to pose a privacy problem than an elaborate, professional one.

Mr. Loewenstein finished his talk at the conference with a word of warning about a medium that appears to confound our ability to navigate privacy issues according to our best interests. “The cues that we rely on through culture and evolution to tell us there is a privacy issue are not present on the Internet,” he said. Meanwhile, “the same technology magnifies the risk.”