Does Privacy Matter?

The New York Times and Times of London this week took two very different views on the issue of online privacy.

The New York Times opines that people (especially people in "terrorist" countries) need to get accustomed to having their activities recorded and judged by concerned fellow citizens.  Their thesis is that privacy is dead, and that this is a "good thing" (tm) because we can all spy on each other and stop bad guys.  This is the same argument against privacy that is made every time a stunned neighborhood in a privacy-loving culture discovers that a predator has been doing bad things in his house next door.

Conversely, the Times of London argues that too little privacy and too much spying by "fellow citizens" leads to mob justice.  They cite the recent example in China of a girl who impulsively recorded herself saying some disrespectful things about the Sichuan quake victims, and was tracked down and harrassed by angry citizens.

As more details of our lives become public and instantly indexed in powerful search engines, such questions are sure to arise again and again.  But I think that both the NYT and Times of London are missing the point.  They both presume that cultural norms and expectations about privacy can be swayed through a process of discourse and debate, or that negative outcomes can be avoided by prescribing policy correctly.

In reality, different cultures have different attitudes toward privacy, and these professed attitudes remain remarkably constant over time.  NYT lecturing Arabs or Austrians to be more like Chinese, or Times of London lecturing Chinese to be more like Austrians, are pointless wastes of ink.

Furthermore, we've learned that a group's cultural attitudes toward privacy are often a poor predictor of how they will behave when presented with specific new technological challenges to privacy.  Austrians may love privacy in principle, but they still give Doubleclick massive amounts of data about their personal browsing habits.  One could argue that this is because they are unaware of the level of tracking that's done, but I suspect that it's in large part because they don't really care as much as they say they do.

Study after study has shown that the attitudes toward privacy which people adopt and profess, do not necessarily translate to action in given situations.  People know how they *should* feel about privacy, and will happily parrot those beliefs -- but they all too often will give up their privacy at a moments whim and ignore warnings when their privacy has been compromised.  One partiularly sobering study showed many New Yorkers giving away their social security number and password to a stranger on the street after being told the information was for an "I Love New York" survey.  The participants' desire to contribute to the "New York Love" led them to eagerly give away very sensitive information.  We find that people readily give away personal information for many similarly impulsive payoffs, such as free access to download some tool or try a hot web site, or to mail a humorous video to a friend.

So, when it comes to privacy, why do so many people profess one thing and do another?  And what can be done about it?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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