Literacy and Rational Choice in Privacy Decisions

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Is there an identifiable combination of social, economic, legal, technological or psychological factors that contribute to how Canadians make decisions about their privacy?

While an easy answer to this question is impossible, conversations at last week’s Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2009 Conference did offer some insight into how individuals perceive and protect their personal privacy.

Mike Shaver, drawing upon his experience working with privacy pioneer Zero Knowledge, noted that people at the time were interested in privacy protection, but did not want to deal with the financial cost, the complexity of privacy tools, or the degradation of the speed on their network.

In his experience, individuals “don’t enhance their privacy. They prevent it from being degraded and they limit the damage.”

In fact, people can act against their own interest, even when they are aware of the cost. As Shaver pointed out, we still continue to buy Starbucks frappucinos, even if they may violate our stated goals of losing weight and cutting down on sweets.

Lauren Gelman, of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, argued that a more pragmatic approach to privacy advocacy may be necessary from time to time.

In developing What App?, a tool to help consumers judge the privacy protections behind third party applications, Gelman admitted that the project was “willing to sacrifice highly technical information for information that is useful for my mom and informing her decisions as a result.”

A different panel touched upon literacy skills – and whether online users were equipped to interpret the range of written, visual and audio information presented to them online.

Past research by Valerie Steeves and Jacqueline Burkell has confirmed that literacy skills can affect how users assess their exposure to privacy risks – especially if online privacy policies are presented as cumbersome documents, hidden in a thicket of legal terminology.

Is the solution a more elaborate but considered opt-in process, like that put in place by Google in order to subscribe to its PowerMeter application?

Or is reality more accurately reflected in the announcement last week that Dairy Queen will offer free or discounted ice cream treats to members of their new loyalty program – a program which depends upon an RFID chip stuck to each customer’s mobile phone?

It seems clear that privacy advocates will have to spend more time looking at the social sciences (economics, psychology, sociology) while evaluating novel approaches to privacy protection – approaches that attempt to influence individuals to make more privacy-positive choices in their day-to-day lives.

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