To err is human: some thoughts about online privacy

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Last month, we held our second Insights on Privacy armchair event, with Alessandro Acquisti and Christena Nippert-Eng as our guests. Much of the discussion revolved around the challenges of negotiating privacy in an online environment, and we heard many interesting observations about how human nature gets in the way of good online privacy decisions. Dr. Acquisti’s research shows that the more in control people feel over their personal information, the more sensitive information they tend to disclose. Granular controls in privacy settings give people a sense of power over their information that may be more illusion than reality. When deciding how much information to reveal, people also become confused in online environments because they cannot rely on the physical cues that guide them in their off-line interactions. Without physically seeing our audience, it’s easy to misjudge or disregard those who can see us.

What can be done to bring more reality to our online experience? With technology companies pushing disclosure, innovative solutions need to be developed to help individuals better adapt to the online world. Perhaps we should be presented with personalized visual cues, like a picture of a disapproving grandmother, to make us think twice before posting. According to Dr. Nippert-Eng, personalization is important because the reactions of those we know are much more influential than those of strangers. Dr. Acquisti believes, like many privacy advocates, that more privacy protections need to be built into technology, like seatbelts for the internet. This would go far in addressing the problem of perceived control over information, and make individuals less susceptible to making mistakes with their privacy.

As Dr. Nippert-Eng describes in her book “Islands of Privacy: Selective Concealment and Disclosure in Everyday Life”, we make dozens of privacy decisions on a daily basis. It would be nice if online that process became a little bit easier.

The next event in the Insights on Privacy series will take place on April 20th with Aza Raskin and Adam Greenfield , who will talk about privacy, design and innovation. Stay tuned to our blog for details.

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