Redrawing The Route To Online Privacy

Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at the Center for Internet & Society, discusses his research on voice and animation technologies that emulate humans to deliver warnings about privacy issues to web browsers. Steve Lohr of the New York Times reports:

On the Internet, things get old fast. One prime candidate for the digital dustbin, it seems, is the current approach to protecting privacy on the Internet.

It is an artifact of the 1990s, intended as a light-touch policy to nurture innovation in an emerging industry. And its central concept is “notice and choice,” in which Web sites post notices of their privacy policies and users can then make choices about sites they frequent and the levels of privacy they prefer.

But policy and privacy experts agree that the relentless rise of Internet data harvesting has overrun the old approach of using lengthy written notices to safeguard privacy.


M. Ryan Calo, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School, is exploring technologies that deliver “visceral notice.” His research involves voice and animation technology that emulates humans. When putting information in a personal health record, for example, a virtual nurse could explain to the user the privacy implications, and trade-offs, of sharing personal information with doctors, family members, insurers and drug companies.

Mr. Calo explains that people naturally react more strongly, in a visceral way, to anthropomorphic cues. He points to a sociological experiment that had people pay for coffee on an honor system. One box for depositing cash had a picture of flowers on it, while another had a picture of human eyes. Time and again, he said, people paid more often for coffee when the box had eyes instead of flowers. “Our brains are hard-wired to respond to images that look human, alive,” Mr. Calo said.