Continuing the theme of privacy and behaviour, there is another experiment that may give us a few hints about our choices to share data excessively.
This time I am asking you to think about theft. Have you ever stolen anything? What was the last item someone stole from you?
Theft means different things to different people, and depending on the circumstances one can justify their actions to themselves in a way that doesn't make them look bad (at least not when they look in the mirror).
A series of experiments conducted by Daniel Ariely established that an average person is unlikely to take/steal dollar bills, but they are likelier to do that with non-monetary items such as office supplies. Here is a relevant quote:
"Ariely and his students went around and left six-packs of Coke in randomly selected dorm refrigerators all over campus. When he checked back in a few days, all of the Cokes were gone.
But when he later placed plates of six loose dollar bills in those same refrigerators, not a single bill was missing when he checked back."
When something is several steps removed from actual money, it is easier for an average person to "borrow" (and never return). Imagine a spectrum like this: bills and coins - debit card - banking cheque - discount coupons and gift cards - product (e.g. pen, apple, ...)
The further you are on the right, the greater is the distance to "actual money"; this is what makes it easier for someone to justify their actions and not perceive them as theft.
At this point we can shift our focus from others to ourselves - yes, it is you I am looking at. Examine your history and try to remember if anything similar happened in your past. Did you ever take office supplies such as paper or pens from your employer? Maybe a towel from a hotel? Or a blanket offered by an airline for the duration of a flight?
Estimate the cost of each item and sum it up to X, you'll need this figure later.
An impersonal touch
With office supplies, it "helps" that the target of theft is not an actual person, but an abstract entity such as a corporation or a public institution. Your actions will hardly make a dent in the target's budget, hence justification is easier.
One piece at a time
Another contributing factor is that the process is gradual and it happens in small increments, each of them is within a person's ethical boundaries. It is only when you take the sum of everything (think of your X now) that this becomes a blatant violation of societal norms.
An artistic way to express this idea is the song "One piece at a time" by Johnny Cash, in which the protagonist builds a car (more accurately, a "frankencar") from pieces smuggled out of a factory.
From theft to privacy
Now you should switch hats and regard yourself as the target of an "impersonal thief" who takes something away from you "one piece at a time" over the course of a lifetime.
Because privacy is an abstract concept, you cannot see it or touch it, therefore it is not easy to notice when something happens to it. Most of us will never know if and how our privacy was undermined at one point or another.
When a service provider requests your data, it is akin to "taking a pen" (vs "taking money"), in the terms of our analogy. However, the effect is even more powerful because privacy is intangible.
Further, no company ever asks you to give them all you have at once, the requests are dispersed in time and are broken down into small pieces - a friendship connection here, a geotagged photo there, and pretty soon they know all about you. These little bits of information seem innocuous when handled independently, but modern technology catalyzes the transformation of quantity into quality.
I shall not give you a "7 tips to protect privacy" list. Instead, I prefer to place an emphasis on awareness. Keeping these ideas in the back of your mind will guide you towards better decisions concerning your privacy.
- Privacy erosion is a gradual process with side-effects in the distant future, you have to sharpen your long-term thinking skills
- Privacy protection is a process too - you have to remain continuously vigilant, there is no magic product you can buy once and make the problems go away forever
- Abstract enemies - evolution shaped us for defense against concrete agents (a bear that can eat us, or a rival hunter who also wants to catch the deer we've spotted, etc), whereas nowadays we have to face risks from agents we cannot meet in person - corporations, governments, criminals on the other side of the planet
- A seemingly useless bit of information is valuable to someone who is able to harness vast amounts of data and connect the dots
- Put a price on it and leverage loss aversion - because privacy is abstract, it could be easier to reason about it knowing that companies may see you through the "ARPU" lens (the concept of `average revenue per user` is discussed in the previous article); you are the product, not the customer
Possible research directions
- Does expressing privacy settings in terms of monetary worth encourage people to make more conservative choices?
- Does "putting a face" on a company or a device make end users more mindful of their privacy (because they're dealing with something familiar and concrete, rather than abstract)? If this is so, Amazon should have called their device "Alexa" rather than "Echo" and "Google Home" is not as good as having a real name (like "Siri").
- What cognitive biases can be exploited to make people more privacy-aware?
As an exercise, think about this: when stealing a Coke is morally easier than stealing money, is stealing (i.e. infringing on) privacy easier than stealing a Coke?
* I am not implying that the only reason to protect privacy is because it can be expressed in money; there are many other reasons too (Marc Goodman's "Future crimes" is a good reference), but this idea exploits a known bias in humans - loss aversion. We prefer not to lose modest possessions we already have, even when mathematically the gains of a gamble can be much greater.
* Throughout the article I am intentionally omitting professional thieves - they steal actual money from actual people, being fully aware of the implications of their actions.
* The illustration is a collage of items found on openclipart.org and the Tango icon set.
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