The Reverse Privacy Paradox

There is a very interesting (and fun to read) new paper on the “reverse privacy paradox”, authored by Jessica Colnago, Lorrie Cranor and Alessandro Acquisti. The authors investigate whether there is a reverse privacy paradox, i.e., a mismatch between participants’ dismissive perspectives on privacy and their privacy-protective behaviors

In fact, I found the paper so well-written and interesting that I decided to share a brief summary here. So, here is my attempt at a very brief and simplified overview of the broad range of the paper’s interesting findings. In a nutshell, the authors find that

  • …  (and I very much agree) discussions of the classic “privacy paradox” are often misguided and fail to accurately account for the many nuances of the relationship between privacy mental states and corresponding privacy behavior,
  • … people do care for privacy, but
  • … privacy concerns and behaviors are, unsurprisingly, very specific to context and scenario,
  • … there is salient evidence of people stating they would not care for privacy while at the same time engaging in privacy-preserving or privacy-seeking behavior
  • …  hence, there is a mismatch between people’s dismissive perspectives on privacy and their privacy-protection behavior
  • … the mismatch can, in part and among others, be traced back to narrow definitions of privacy. For example, “non-privacy motivations [for their privacy-seeking behavior] offered by participants seemed consistent with encompassing theories of privacy”.
  • … the mismatch can also partly be explained by concerns and behaviors often depending, again, strongly on context and scenario,
  • … “notions of privacy may be so exclusive to each individual that a participant may engage in behaviors for motivations that other individuals construe in fact as privacy-related, but the participant herself does not consider pertaining to privacy”. 
  • … in addition, many people seem to feel unconcerned because they already engage in privacy-protective behavior.
  • … people’s privacy concerns, preferences and behavior can only be understood if one takes into account the specific scenario and context

These results are a very clear reminder that simplified assumptions regarding whether people value privacy or not are not very helpful in understanding their actual attitudes or, more importantly, behavior. In the authors’ word: “people’s “claims of privacy ‘not being that important to me’ may reflect an individual’s simple disregard for privacy, or may have in fact more complex and nuanced interpretations”. Unfortunately, the study’s participants sample was rather small and not necessarily representative. It will be very interesting to see where this stream of privacy research will lead to.

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