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.

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