How people actually feel about privacy

Okay, let me start off with a simple caveat: This is the short version.

This topic is complex. It’s super nuanced. It’s also pretty subjective.

Having said that, there are some fundamental fallacies that we have to challenge, confront and overcome.

Let’s start by defining terms.

What is privacy?

For the purposes of this post, privacy is the power to influence how one discloses information about themselves.

It’s also the right to be left alone. The right to be free from unwarranted and unwanted interference. It can also be thought of as trust.

Privacy is not data protection. They are related, but distinct.

Now onto the fallacies.

What we get wrong

Non exhaustive and in no particular order:

  1. Privacy is the same as data protection
  2. Privacy is secrecy
  3. People don’t care about privacy
  4. Privacy can be traded or sold
  5. Privacy is dead (related to secrecy fallacy)
  6. Privacy is just a compliance thing

I’d like to focus on number 3, people don’t care about privacy.

Privacy actually matters

I think there’s a strong body of evidence to suggest that people do care about privacy. In simple terms, here’s why:

  1. People value the ability to influence outcomes that relate to them. Agency and autonomy matter
  2. People like to be respected and treated as equals
  3. People kinda like freedom…

This — as with the above list — is non exhaustive. Nor is it prioritised.

So, without dividing down the wondrous rabbit hole (hi Alice!), these three points are strong enough to continue this discussion.

How people actually feel

For the sake of brevity, people in many jurisdictions feel like they’re getting the raw end of the deal. UC Penn highlighted this in 2015 (The Tradeoff Fallacy). PEW’s most recent privacy study highlighted this. Basically every study that ‘surveys’ privacy attitudes supports this.

Even though this is relatively clear and consistent, most research continues to situate ‘privacy’ (by various definitions) related decisions in a psychological context.

People keep saying they care about privacy. People contradict this by continuing to use privacy eroding products and services. Therefore, people mustn’t actually care all that much. Or rather, when weighted against other considerations (because this has to be a zero sum game, right?) people care less.

Yes, this happens. It’s where the idea of the privacy paradox comes from.

Unfortunately, this ‘conclusion’ misses the mark. It fails to effectively account for the broader sociopolitical factors that we cannot seperate from these decisions. It misses the fundamental power imbalances and information asymmetry. It misses the fact that the modern web wasn’t architected to protect that which I’m proposing people value. It doesn’t consider the impact of socio-technological engineering creep.

In reality, people feel powerless. They’ve become apathetic. Apathy behaviourally translates to not giving a feck (i.e “I accept the T&Cs” without active consideration…).

But…

When people actually learn about what going on — say, how RTB and programmatic advertising works today — they feel dismay.

Then…

You explain that there are alternatives. People light up. They’re motivated (inspired might be more accurate framing) at that very moment to take action.

And then…

Most give up. Because the ‘system’ makes is really bloody hard.

What should you take away from all this?

Privacy is complex.

Not everyone has the ability to clearly define it. But working definitions are important for leaders and practitioners in and around this space. The closer we are the speaking the same language the better.

Privacy matters. People care about it. We should respect this and stop making excuses.

We — as a market — are failing to enable people to act on that ‘care’. We make it too hard. Organisations are the positive recipients of the power imbalance. They are the primary beneficiaries of data sharing and related initiatives.

To make privacy truly meaningful, we have to challenge a heck of a lot of assumptions. We need to design new systems that make what people value and care about easier to achieve. We need to embed practical privacy into these systems.

And, we need to do this together. Siloed, highly competitive and disconnected approaches won’t cut it. We need more coordination. We need to reduce waste. We need to find better ways to work together.

If you care about this stuff like I do, let’s talk 😊

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Insights on the intersection of data ethics, privacy and design from the team at greaterthanexperience.design

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Nathan Kinch

Nathan Kinch

A confluence of Happy Gilmore, Conor McGregor and the Dalai Lama.

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