Privacy Trade-offs: Why We Don’t Really Care about Our Privacy as Much as We Say

by on March 1, 2009 · 33 comments

I was reading this Sun Magazine interview with the always-interesting Nick Carr and I liked what he had to say here about the public’s inconsistent views on privacy:

If you ask people whether they’re concerned about the ability of the government or corporations to gather information about them online, they’ll say yes. But if you look at how they behave online, they don’t display much fear of exposing themselves. What that says about people — and it’s true for most of us — is that we will readily forgo our privacy in exchange for convenient and useful services, particularly if they’re free. That’s a trade-off you make all the time on the Internet. Even if people were more conscious of how this information might be exploited, I doubt most would change their behavior.

This reminds me of the classic “hamburgers for DNA” quip from security expert Bruce Schneier who once famously noted that:

If McDonalds in the United States would give away a free hamburger for an DNA sample they would be handing out free lunches around the clock. So people care about their privacy, but they don’t care to pay for it. In the United States we have frequent shopper cards, which will track down people’s purchases for a 5 cents discount on a can of tuna fish. I don’t think you can convince the public to care about it.


The key point here, as Berin Szoka and I noted in our recent paper on targeted online advertising, consumers vary widely in their attitudes towards the inherently nebulous concept of privacy. As our TLF colleague Jim Harper has demonstrated:

Privacy is a state of affairs or condition having to do with the amount of personal information about individuals that is known to others. People maintain privacy by controlling who receives information about them and on what terms. Privacy is the subjective condition that people experience when they have power to control information about themselves and when they exercise that power consistent with their interests and values. [...] An important conclusion flows from the observation that privacy is a subjective condition: government regulation in the name of privacy is based only on politicians’ and bureaucrats’ guesses about what ‘privacy’ should look like.

In a nutshell, ask anyone if they care about their privacy and almost 100% of them will say, yes, absolutely. But then ask them about what they do both online and offline on a daily basis and most of them will reveal a very different set of preferences or values when it comes to what “protecting privacy” would mean in practice. That’s because privacy is, as Harper notes, a highly subjective condition, and that’s true even in a micro sense. We’re constantly making privacy trade-offs on the fly. Every time we enter a contest, sign up for a shopper discount card, enter absurd amounts of personal info on social networking sites, and so on, we are making privacy trade-offs. Sometimes we think them through carefully; other times we don’t. But most of the time people will trade away their supposed “privacy rights” in for even the most trivial things. A Big Mac, 5 cents off a can of tuna fish, or whatever else.

  • MichaelZimmer

    While I agree that people's stated privacy preferences often conflict with the actions they take, both online and off, we need to be careful when we use this as evidence that they actually hold a different set of preferences. Primarily, I fear the majority of people simply are ignorant to the kind of privacy trade-offs they are making with much of their online activities. The lack of knowledge, the design of tools & default settings, etc all lead to an imbalance of both knowledge and power, leading millions to disclose and share information that perhaps they wouldn't if they had full opportunity to learn, decide, and consent.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. I agree that knowledge and tools could both be improved. As Berin Szoka and I argued in our recent paper (cited above), the ideal state of affairs would be to create a system of tools and data disclosure practices that would empower each user to implement their personal privacy preferences while also recognizing the freedom of those who rely on advertising revenues to condition the use of their products and services on disclosure of information. Getting to such perfect-world scenario will be challenging, of course, but I think that's a goal we share (even if we perhaps disagree about how to get us there).

  • http://michaelzimmer.org MichaelZimmer

    Agreed.

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  • eee_eff

    Adam:
    Ed Felten rebutted this whole line of thinking a while back at freedom to tinker, thus:

    One of the standard claims about privacy is that people say they value their privacy but behave as if they don't value it. The standard example involves people trading away private information for something of relatively little value. This argument is often put forth to rebut the notion that privacy is an important policy value. Alternatively, it is posed as a “what could they be thinking” puzzle.
    I used to be impressed by this argument, but lately I have come to doubt its power. Let me explain why.
    Suppose you offer to buy a piece of information about me, such as my location at this moment. I'll accept the offer if the payment you offer me is more than the harm I would experience due to disclosing the information. What matters here is the marginal harm, defined as amount of privacy-goodness I would have if I withheld the information, minus the amount I would have if I disclosed it.
    The key word here is marginal. If I assume that my life would be utterly private, unless I gave this one piece of information to you, then I might require a high price from you. But if I assume that I have very little privacy to start with, then selling this one piece of information to you makes little difference, and I might as well sell it cheaply. Indeed, the more I assume that my privacy is lost no matter what I do, the lower a price I'll demand from you. In the limit, where I expect you can get the information for free elsewhere even if I withhold if from you, I'll be willing to sell you the information for a penny.
    Viewed this way, the price I charge you tells you at least as much about how well I think my privacy is protected, as it does about how badly I want to keep my location private. So the answer to “what could they be thinking” is “they could be thinking they have no privacy in the first place”.

  • http://www.openmarket.org/author/alex-harris/ AlexHarris

    Perhaps an explanation can be found in Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: People say they want policies enhancing privacy, even if it costs them, because there's basically no chance their simply saying this will change anything. But they reveal their real preferences when they have to trade-off totally internalized costs and benefits. That's in the market, not the political sphere (including the sphere of opinion polls, but the voting booth as well).

  • jdfalk

    Wait a minute. Seems to me like this isn't truly a dichotomy: people want to be able to give away their private info when they choose.

    If McDonalds started taking DNA samples from customers without asking, or required 'em to walk in the door, there'd be a backlash. But if (as Bruce Schneier noted) they gave away a free hamburger, that's okay, because the owner of the DNA is choosing to share it.

  • TVS_TELEVISIONS

    Just one more example to add to the growing list on how morally bankrupt society at large seems to be–from the election of a president with absolutely 0 experience/background or knowledge of who and what he really is to failing to take a stand on anything that might be considered inappropriate to the PC crowd.

  • TVS_TELEVISIONS

    Just one more example to add to the growing list on how morally bankrupt society at large seems to be–from the election of a president with absolutely 0 experience/background or knowledge of who and what he really is to failing to take a stand on anything that might be considered inappropriate to the PC crowd.

  • TVS_TELEVISIONS

    Just one more example to add to the growing list on how morally bankrupt society at large seems to be–from the election of a president with absolutely 0 experience/background or knowledge of who and what he really is to failing to take a stand on anything that might be considered inappropriate to the PC crowd.

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