(Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Although many people say they want to protect their personal information, privacy tends to take a backseat to convenience and can easily get tossed out the window for a reward as simple as free pizza, a new study shows.
The research provides real-life evidence of a digital privacy paradox: a disconnect between stated privacy preferences and actual privacy choices. And it serves policymakers with some food for thought about how to regulate data sharing without creating more hassles for consumers.
Professor Susan Athey found that what people say they want in terms of online privacy and what they actually do are often very different. (Credit: Fyza Parviz/Stanford)
“Generally, people don’t seem to be willing to take expensive actions or even very small actions to preserve their privacy,” says Susan Athey, coauthor of the paper and a senior fellow at the Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research. “Even though, if you ask them, they express frustration, unhappiness, or dislike of losing their privacy, they tend not to make choices that correspond to those preferences.”
In highlighting the distortions in consumer behavior regarding privacy, the findings suggest that safeguards, such as the widespread “Notice and Choice” policies under the Privacy Act of 1974, are not enough.
“Generally, people don’t seem to be willing to take expensive actions or even very small actions to preserve their privacy.”
Athey and her coauthors clinched a unique opportunity to empirically explore the privacy paradox when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a project in 2014 to encourage experimentation with Bitcoin by university undergraduates.
The researchers examined how 3,108 undergraduates played out their privacy preferences while choosing an online wallet to store and manage the digital currency. Along with the Bitcoin distribution, researchers also measured the students’ privacy preferences.
Regardless of varying levels of privacy features, the order of the four wallet options presented upon sign-up seemed to drive many of the participants’ decisions, even when the choice contrasted with their stated privacy preferences, the study found.
And it made little difference when researchers provided students with more details of each wallet’s privacy features; the influential effect of the ranking order persisted.
What’s more, students who had expressed stronger preferences for privacy—whether it was privacy from the government, the commercial provider, or the public—essentially behaved no differently than those who says privacy was less of a concern, the study found.