I’ve long been saying that privacy need not be sacrificed for security, and it makes me delighted to see that public attitudes are aligning with this view. A Pew survey revealed that a “majority of Americans (54%) disapprove of the U.S. government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.” The anti-NSA surveillance sentiment is even stronger in other countries, as is shown in this chart below.
According to the survey, “74% said they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety, while just 22% said the opposite.”
The debate between privacy and security has been framed incorrectly, with the tradeoff between these values understood as an all-or-nothing proposition. But protecting privacy need not be fatal to security measures; it merely demands oversight and regulation.
It is often said that people don’t care much about privacy these days given how much information they expose about themselves. But survey after survey emphatically concludes that people really do care about privacy.
A common argument I hear is that young people just don’t care about privacy. If they cared about privacy, why would they share so much personal data on Facebook? Why would they text so much? Why would they be so cavalier about their privacy? Privacy will be dead in a generation, the argument goes.
This argument is wrong for several reasons. Studies show that young people do care about privacy. A few years ago, a study by Chris Hoofnagle and others revealed that young people’s attitudes about privacy didn’t differ much from older people’s attitudes. A more recent study sponsored by Microsoft found that “[p]rivacy and security rank as college students’ #1 concern about online activity.”
But what accounts for the behavior of sharing so much personal data online? First, young people—especially teenagers—might not be thinking through the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean they will never care about privacy; they might care about privacy at a point in the future.
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.