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How Do We Solve the Privacy Paradox?

privacy paradox

At the heart of every paradox is self-contradiction, and we seldom contradict ourselves more than when we go online. Despite our misgivings about online security and our best intentions to limit the amount of information we publish, we often find ourselves eager to share our most personal moments without full appreciation of who may retain and use this information without our consent.

Welcome to the privacy paradox. More than just a clever term to describe our modern condition, the privacy paradox is a global phenomenon which undermines a future where personal privacy thrives. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take mindful action to reduce its prevalence in our culture.

What is the Privacy Paradox?

The privacy paradox manifests itself in many ways online. Broadly defined:

“[The privacy paradox] is a consequence of the competing demand to use information technologies (including social technology and social software) and have an on-line persona, which simultaneously having to guard against potential threats to personal safety and privacy resulting from the misuse of available information.”

Researchers have been tracking this concept for some time, but the issue is all the more pressing due to the virtual seamlessness of our online/offline life, and the emergence of a digital economy. As Ryan Calo, law professor at the University of Washington reports to NPR for All Tech Considered, “There’s a bit of a disconnect between what people say and what they do.” This isn’t limited to the U.S. The 2014 EMC Privacy Index surveyed 15,000 people in 15 countries and found evidence of the privacy paradox in every region.

Essentially, there are situations where our beliefs are not aligned with our behavior. While I’ve written in the past about the need to develop a privacy practice which aligns our values with our behaviors, there are still profoundly challenging reasons why the privacy paradox exists.

What Drives the Privacy Paradox?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “We Say We Want Privacy Online, But Our Actions Say Otherwise,” looks at a range of potential factors which contribute to our inconsistent views about privacy. The mix is complex, blending psychological, emotional, and technology design issues. Privacy professionals would do well to focus on a few essential points:

1. Privacy is a faceless issue. According to the article, “privacy … is an intangible, hard-to-quantify concept and is therefore often not on the forefront of people’s minds.” It goes on to highlight instances where targeted advertisements based on surreptitious online tracking tends to set off alarm bells with users as an example where privacy issues become concrete and troubling. This speaks to why awareness and empowerment is such an important issue for those interested in working to preserve privacy.

2. Defaults are not always pro-privacy. Companies want to maximize their return in all ways, and that often includes privacy settings which optimize how much information users share with companies by default. Users tend to assume companies will default to maximally private settings, but this is seldom the case. This is why it’s so vital we champion privacy by design practices.

3. Oversharing is common. Not only does it feel good to share, but people tend to share more when others are sharing as well. We should resist this trend by reminding people there’s no reason they should be shy about being private.

4. People don’t realize the implications of what they are sharing. The interfaces we use to share information are designed to be as frictionless as possible, encouraging us to tap, swipe, and submit without a moment’s thought. But how much could change if we encouraged people to SEE their privacy choices clearly?

An article in Psychology Today which explores the behavioral factors that explain the privacy paradox  echoes the themes above.

Techniques To Help Solve the Privacy Paradox

There are no magic fixes for the privacy paradox, but there are some best practices which can help balance its effect, if not turn the tide with time:

1. Embody privacy. Individuals and companies can embody privacy. Have a vision of a future where privacy is sacrosanct and ask yourself how you can challenge norms. Individuals can lead by example, and companies can embrace privacy by design principles, giving users access to clear notices and real choices.

2. Play your part. Become an advocate for privacy by joining the privacy movement. Increase your own awareness of the privacy tools available and advocacy work within the movement. Promote them with friends, family, and coworkers.

3. Hone your privacy practice. Good habits must be cultivated with time and diligence, and our privacy practice is no different in this regard. Integrate pro-privacy technology into your life, and remain open to new developments within the privacy movement.

We do not have to accept the status quo of the privacy paradox.

As Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
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