Are American Attitudes Toward Privacy Changing?

The ongoing national debate over surveillance prompts us to take a closer look at the way Americans think about their privacy. Several scientific studies show that what Americans say they want in terms of privacy does not match the way they behave.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Revelations this week that the government is tracking billions of email messages and phone calls have produced conflicting responses among Americans. Some are outraged that their government is spying on them. For others, it's more like, duh. The debate is bringing to the fore larger questions about our changing attitudes toward privacy.

And to talk about that, we've brought in NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to discuss new research.

Shankar, welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in just the past few years, it seems as if Americans are more willing than ever to share fairly private portions of their personal lives online. But is that actual evidence that our attitudes toward privacy are changing?

VEDANTAM: That's really an interesting question, Linda, because when social scientists look at this empirically, they find that people actually don't want less privacy. People seem to want more privacy - at least they want more control over their privacy, and this is true of both younger, as well as older people. But when you look at their behavior, people seem to be revealing more than they used to. You know how much money they make, the status of their relationships, illnesses. So there's this disconnect between what people say they want in terms of privacy and what they actually seem to choose in terms of their privacy options. And, you know, it's sort of ironic that we're debating how the NSA is tracking how phone A calls phone B, because in many ways, marketers are well ahead of spies in this game. They've not only found ways to get much more private information out of us; ostensibly, it's with our permission.

WERTHEIMER: We have heard a lot about how marketers make it hard for us to understand their privacy policies, so that inadvertently we cannot control our privacy.

VEDANTAM: Yes, that's absolutely true. I think complicated privacy rules are very powerful in shaping people's behavior. At Carnegie Mellon University, Alessandro Acquisti, George Loewenstein and Lorrie Cranor have done a number of experiments exploring different dimensions of privacy. I talked to Acquisti. He told me that between 2005 and 2009, there was actually a decrease in willingness to share information on Facebook. But then in 2009, Facebook changed its privacy rules, and the sharing went back up. So, just because people don't like rules doesn't mean they don't follow the rules.

And it's not just rules. There are actually much more subtle ways in which people can be influenced. When we see other people disclosing private information, or we are led to believe that other people are disclosing private information, we may say we don't want to disclose our private information, but we end up doing it anyway.

WERTHEIMER: So you're saying if I'm on Facebook and I see my friends sharing very personal information, say, about a breakup, then I'll do it, too?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. Or I might reveal something about my child, or a problem that my child is encountering at school. I think what Acquisti is basically saying is that there are these unconscious biases that really are very powerful.

You know, there's another very clever technique that he's discovered. He initially assumed that when you're trying to get private information out of people, it's better to start by asking a trivial question and then slowly build up to more intrusive questions.

So what Acquisti did was he asked 30 questions for people, and they ranged all the way from the innocuous - have you ever left the light on in a room when you left the room - all the way up to: Have you ever had sex with the current partner of a friend?

And interestingly, what he found was exactly the opposite: people revealed much more when you asked them the most intrusive question first. Now, they didn't actually reveal the answer to that most intrusive question, but for every other question, they compared the next questions with the most intrusive question. And compared to revealing things about adultery, you know, questions about whether they'd falsified an insurance claim seemed much less intrusive.

And so when he asked the questions in decreasing orders of intrusiveness, he found nearly twice as many people admitted to falsifying an insurance claim, and nearly three times as many people said they hadn't told a partner about a sexually transmitted disease.

WERTHEIMER: So what do these researchers make of the controversy over the NSA surveillance?

VEDANTAM: You know, I asked Acquisti about that, and what he said is that, you know, the cloak-and-dagger stuff really worked great in 1913 and maybe in 1963, but in 2013, people are much more likely to reveal their private information not when they're spied on, but when they feel they have total control over their information. That's when they let loose.

WERTHEIMER: That's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to talk about social science research. Shankar, thank you.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: You can follow him on Twitter, @HiddenBrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program, @MorningEdition.

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