STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's talk about online privacy, or the lack of it. Facebook, Google, and many other Internet Services ask you to accept privacy policies, and the other day I had an experience which suggested to me what that might feel like if it happened in my life away from my devices.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
INSKEEP: Hey, Shankar.
I had asked NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam into my office. I just wanted to chat. He's an interesting guy, but I was surprised when he showed up at the door with a 35-page stack of paper.
INSKEEP: This is like a stack of paper here.
VEDANTAM: Yeah. Yeah. Here's a pen. All you have to do is just sign on the last sheet.
INSKEEP: Okay. Just because you're telling me, I'm gonna sign this, because really, time is short.
VEDANTAM: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: So I signed it the same way that I click I accept on those endless online privacy policies, and then afterwards Shankar began standing around my office making observations.
VEDANTAM: This is Steve Inskeep, white male, six foot two, latitude 38.901951, desk extremely cluttered, checking some of the emails that have been printed out and laid on the desk next to him.
INSKEEP: Excuse me - excuse me, Shankar, you're kind of invading my space here.
INSKEEP: Yeah, that's my daughter. Thank you very much.
VEDANTAM: Oh, great. OK. That's his daughter.
VEDANTAM: Well, Steve, what I was trying to illustrate really is that we have very different takes on invasions of our privacy. When there's an actual human being who walks into our space, our homes or our offices, and when that invasion of privacy is being done technologically, that we're much more aware of it when there's a human being compared to when it's being done by technology. And, you know, the analogy I have is when you're driving on the street and you see a cop behind you, it's much easier to pay attention to the cop than it is to pay attention to a traffic camera. And that's because evolutionarily our brains are designed to pay attention to other human beings. Our brains are not designed to pay attention to webcams and cookies and traffic cameras and GPS trackers and Java scripts and all the other ways in which we're being monitored electronically.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. But of course, as you recall, Steve, you just signed this 35-page document that I've placed before you.
INSKEEP: Ah, yes.
VEDANTAM: If you can take a look at page 33 of the policy that I just handed to you, can you read out the last paragraph that's on page 33 of this policy, please?
INSKEEP: If I can find page 33. Last paragraph. I, Steve Inskeep, prevent Shankar Vedantam to track everything I do at NPR. By signing this policy, I explicitly welcome all intrusions into my personal privacy. I signed that.
VEDANTAM: You totally signed it, Steve. Why did you sign it?
INSKEEP: Because you said to, basically. It was too long a read and it's a policy.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So I spoke with this researcher who studies online privacy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her name is Lorrie Cranor. And she had something really interesting to say about the number of online privacy policies that are put before the average person in any given year.
LORRIE CRANOR: If people were to actually stop and read all of them for every website that they visited, they could spend on the order 200, 250 hours a year. It's about a month of time at work each year that you could spend reading privacy policies.
INSKEEP: So my life just got shorter if I'm trying to guard my - and in the end I've got to click I accept anyway or I can't access the site.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, you know, actually, when you think about it, it's really a thing of beauty, Steve, which is if you give people things that are really long and difficult to read, most of them won't bother reading it. And of the people who do bother reading it, because the monitoring is silent and happening via technology, they quickly forget how intrusive it is.
INSKEEP: Is there any doubt that companies go out of their way to make these policies incomprehensible?
VEDANTAM: I have no comment on that, Steve.
VEDANTAM: Sure thing, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can track him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.
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