How Much Data Would You Give Up For Cheap Fun?

Why we play fast and loose with our personal information

Photo by Beata Dudová from Pexels

Given the flurry of activity around privacy in the media these days, it’s difficult to argue consumers have no understanding that the data generated from their devices are collected by public and private sector entities alike. In fact, a recent Pew Research study found 62% of Americans believe it’s impossible to go through daily life without having their data collected. 81% believe they have very little or no control over the data collected by private sector companies. Amidst this clear perception of lack of agency over our data, why are we still compelled to share so much of it so freely?

The New York Times published an interactive feature as part of its ‘The Privacy Project’ vehicle this week, which cheekily points out how easy it is for companies to extract data from us via our web-enabled devices. The feature, a game entitled “Can You Defeat the Privacy Chicken?,” challenges readers to see how far they are willing to go in sharing personal information before they ‘chicken out.’ The game carries its own terms and conditions, though you are encouraged to dismiss them, as you probably always do (unless you are a friendly neighborhood privacy geek). The terms specify a player does not need to share real personal information, but go ahead and give it a go to see how far you make it!

This game may seem absurd, but it does prompt one to wonder about the last time you shared ‘harmless’ information that could end up being used against you. I only made it to Level 6 — sharing my location, which is often the default behavior for any smartphone app, was too rich for my blood. In some cases, you may gain a ton of utility from being able to use an app’s maximum functionality by providing certain data points. You may have no qualms about sharing with a trusted provider like your mobile banking, travel, or news source apps. However, what the game illustrates is our willingness to part with information companies can use to create tremendous value for their bottom line in exchange for mindless fun.

How can it be that privacy is overwhelmingly popular, yet we still behave so lackadaisically?

The Privacy Paradox

Researchers call this notion the “privacy paradox.” The privacy paradox suggests we believe lack of privacy is a problem, but we don’t behave accordingly. Some have suggested this is due to a lack of understanding of when companies collect or how they use personal information, but in the wake of increased transparency and media scrutiny, this is unlikely to be the full story.

Though no one has fully explained the cognitive dissonance evident in practice between caring about privacy and sharing data with abandon, it’s not inconceivable to hypothesize this might be a combination of several underlying factors:

  1. Conditioning — Internet business models evolved to present free content to encourage adoption to achieve scale. In order to subsidize the content creation, most companies turned to advertising. As advertising technologies became more and more sophisticated, more data was collected in order to inform the advertising served to users. As part of the value exchange, users generally must provide personal data in order to use services for free. We’ve gotten so used to this requirement that we accept it as the price for access and don’t think twice before agreeing to the fine print.
  2. Awareness, without depth — While many tech savvy consumers know their devices and apps collect their data, we may not realize the extent to which this information is combined, modeled, and activated with other profile data about us downstream — or how it can be shared further and abused.
  3. The “Future Me” problem — Remember when you splurged on a new pair of shoes or ate that second slice of cake? We sometimes overvalue how we’ll feel in the present vs. the future. When it comes to data privacy, we might like the idea in theory, but value the utility of a service requiring us to provide personal information more in the present moment than we do the downside of future risks. We are willing to accept the consequences in the moment and label them as a ‘later problem.’
  4. Reluctant acceptance — Perhaps we really do understand the exchange we are making, but we believe there is not much we can do in protest if we want to participate to the fullest in culture and society. Those 62% of Americans Pew Research surveyed were on to something here — they believe resistance is futile because web-based services have become so interwoven with our daily lives that we might as well accept their data collection practices.

While any combination of these factors may explain how we’ve gotten to a boiling point regarding privacy and enterprise, it remains to be seen whether changes in consumer attitudes and behavior will be enough to stem the data flow. There is some good news for the privacy chickens out there — there are many moderate steps you can take to protect your data while still participating in modern society, huzzah!

What can you do about it?

In 2017, App Annie found Americans have an average of well above 80 mobile apps downloaded on their smartphones during any given month. Given 36% of us use between 11 and 20 mobile apps monthly, we generally give companies many opportunities to capture our data. All of this data collection making you queasy? Not to fret, there are simple steps you can take to limit your exposure without totally swearing off your favorite apps and spending too much time reading privacy policies:

  1. Find the right ‘app diet’ — If you pay close attention to your mobile and desktop Internet use, you’ll likely realize you don’t use or need most of the apps you have on your devices on a day-to-day basis. These apps could still be collecting data about your location or other activity while not in use depending on your settings. Take a page from Marie Kondo’s book, and if those apps are not giving you joy, delete them — or at the very least, check the settings to ensure they can’t mine your data.
  2. Decline non-essential cookies & trackers — Apps are increasingly required by regulators and device OS developers to provide notice and choice around cookies and location tracking before collecting your data. Some of these trackers are essential for the working of the service, but you can safely opt out of most of the others.
  3. Check privacy ratings before downloading — A number of different organizations have emerged as app watchdogs who will do the work of reading privacy policies for you. My favorite is CommonSense Privacy Program, which has a particular orientation towards ensuring children’s privacy is respected. Their evaluation process is based on the internationally accepted Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) and takes criteria such as privacy norms in the country of origin, means of personal information collection, and level of transparency into account. About 20% of apps evaluated pass CommonSense’s ratings process, but if this is too rigorous, there are others to which you can compare their reviews.

In the end, awareness and being deliberate about who you trust with your information are the most important things to keep in mind. We can influence data collection practices by opting for alternative services with a greater respect for user privacy. In this way, we can all vote with our thumbs when it comes to which services we choose to download.

That’s all for this week, dear readers!

Armchair Public-Interest Technologist | Working to make sense of the intersection between policy & technology

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