Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, has done great research into the conflicts we have over privacy and publicy: how willing are we to reveal ourselves.
Somini Sengupta, Web Privacy, and How Consumers Let Down Their Guard
Aiming to learn how consumers determine the value of their privacy, Mr. Acquisti dispatched a set of graduate students to a suburban mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. To some shoppers, the students offered a $10 discount card, plus an extra $2 discount in exchange for their shopping data. Half declined the extra offer — apparently, they weren’t willing to reveal the contents of their shopping cart for a mere $2.
To other shoppers, however, the students offered a different choice: a $12 discount card and the option of trading it in for $10 if they wished to keep their shopping record private. Curiously, this time, 90 percent of shoppers chose to keep the higher-value coupon — even if it meant giving away the information about what they had bought.
Why such contradictory responses?
To Mr. Acquisti, the results offered a window into the tricks our minds can play. If we have something — in this case, ownership of our purchase data — we are more likely to value it. If we don’t have it at the outset, we aren’t likely to pay extra to acquire it. Context matters.
It also matters how we define privacy. Conventional wisdom around Web privacy policies rests on the notion that consumers will make intelligent choices. At a recent industry conference in San Francisco, Erin Egan, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, defined privacy as “understanding what happens to your data and having the ability to control it.”
Mr. Acquisti, however, suggests that control can be false comfort. In one of his most intriguing experiments, he summoned student volunteers to take an anonymous survey on vice.
The participants were asked whether they had ever stolen anything, lied or taken drugs. Some were told that their answers would be published in a research bulletin, others were asked for explicit permission to publish those answers, and still others were asked for permission to publish the answers as well as their age, sex and country of birth.
The results revealed the imperfection of human reasoning. Those who were offered the least control over who would see their answers seemed most reluctant to reveal themselves: among them, only 15 percent answered all 10 questions. Those who were asked for consent were nearly twice as likely to answer all questions. And among those who were asked for demographic information, every single person gave permission to disclose the data, even though those details could have allowed a complete stranger a greater chance of identifying the participant.
Mr. Acquisti took note of the paradox: fine-grained controls had led people to “share more sensitive information with larger, and possibly riskier, audiences.” He titled the paper, which he wrote with his colleagues Laura Brandimarte and George Loewenstein, “Misplaced Confidences: Privacy and the Control Paradox.”
“What worries me,” he said, “is that transparency and control are empty words that are used to push responsibility to the user for problems that are being created by others.”
I see these behaviors from the perspective of the ‘continuation of self’. Once a person has provided detailed information about themsleves — and gotten the sense of reward that comes from talking (or thinking) about who they are demographically or narratively, they then will naturally want to share that, to continue the positive feelings of narrative about self. This is the publicy urge.
The first case I think hinges on the shift of emphasis in the $12 card. It seems to be affirming the value of information about the person’s choices, where in the case of the additional $2, my sense is that it makes the information seem cheap, since $2 is less than $10. A logical trap, yes, but again associated with the abiding desire for a belief in the value of self narrative, which is the best way to think of our data exhaust: it doesn’t seem like a possession, but a by-product of self-expression.