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Paradoxical Attitudes Toward Privacy

My friend Sanjana sent me an interesting blog post from the NYT today on privacy. Brad Stone: "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.


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.


"...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..."


I find that many in the younger generation have a privacy-by-volume attitude. So many people are using google and facebook and myspace, etc. that they figure no one is going to care about the information they toss into the whirlpool. Plus, ratty little websites like "How Bad R U" come and go all the time. What's the chance that information submitted there will make it to law enforcement? About nil. And law enforcement has neither the time nor the capacity to scan the internet for every admission of lewd or irresponsible behavior. They can't even match emails to identities easily. Plus, who's going to vet it? Maybe it was made up. Plausible deniability.


I agree with one of the posters: this is a transitional period. Yes, the Presidential candidate in 2038 will have a MySpace record from 2008, but so will pretty much everyone voting for him or her. The gotcha era of "I didn't inhale" and faked National Guard letters will be long gone by then.


> The gotcha era of "I didn't inhale" and faked
> National Guard letters will be long gone by then.
Was that said tongue-in-cheek, or were you serious? I think it would be woefully naive to think "gotcha" campaign issues will go away. George Washington was accused of gambling, horseracing and horse whipping. Andrew Jackson was accused of "living in sin" with his wife, in that it was claimed that her prior divorce was never finalized. Grover Cleveland was accused of having an illegitimate child (which was arguably true), and his opponents had an unoffical slogan of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Unfortunately, this kind of campaigning is unlikely to ever go away.
I think in 2-3 decades, you may very well have people needled over the things they've posted online in the past (if some record of it remains -- which it might). Whether the voters had similar embarrassing things in their old MySpace pages may have little impact. The significant percentage of people who commit adultery was of limited help to Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, and the large number of baby boomers who at least tried pot may, if anything, have hurt Clinton when he tried to excuse his own use with the improbable claim of not inhaling.
Getting back to your main point, it is inconsistent in some ways that people value privacy, and yet give it up so readily. However, there's a difference between choosing to waive your privacy in some area, and having it disregarded by others without your consent. Perhaps the real issue is that so many people are naive enough to think that revealing their private information won't result in it being spread and used more than they would have wanted.

Interesting source article. One issue that really points up inconsistency is the thought pattern that suggest GPS = tracking coming from folks who think nothing of carrying an ordinary cell phone or cell network enabled PDA around with them. The cellular system can track _any_ connected device, by law (the E911 FCC regulations) they must be able to give coordinates within 100 meters, it is often better, and there is no way to turn this capability off.
I've already read of cases where police asked for lists of every cell phone user in a stadium during a certain sporting event, etc. If this isn't "casting a wide net" I don't know what it is, and GPS plays no role in these actions.

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