Privacy paradox

Over the past few years, researchers have observed a strange phenomena.  People claim they value privacy and claim to act based on that value, but when observing actual behavior, most people freely divulge private information far beyond their stated concerns (for example, see The Privacy Paradox: Personal Information Disclosure Intentions versus Behaviors, by Norbert, Horne, and Horne, in Journal of Consumer Affairs, 2007,

In a recent research project I have under development, I found an even stranger finding.  When controlling for the ethical judgment of requests for private information, privacy concerns of subjects was negatively related to a refusal to disclose information.  What the heck is going on?

This paradox is baffling. On the one hand, privacy seems to be a hot topic among all political persuasions and all ages.  Even my 8 year old daughter seems to find it valuable when she and her friends close the door to keep her brothers out of her room.

I think part of the reason for the paradox is that privacy is extremely context dependent.  What is privacy violation in one place, time, and company is not in another place, time, and company.  Changing your clothes on a nude beach – there can be no expectations of privacy.  Same person changing their clothes in their bedroom with the door closed – there is privacy expectations.  Barging in is not acceptable.

For information privacy, the same goes.  You may think other people do not need to know your birth date.  But when a friend asks or a bank says they need it for processing a credit check, you give it up.  Privacy is so fickle and expectations change so quickly, that without careful attention, it seems like the privacy paradox is a real thing.  In fact, it may just be an artifact of poor measurements.

The importance of good measurements cannot be over-emphasized.  As I was recently reading Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, I repeatedly saw how precise measurements were instrumental in pushing the field of science forward. Many discoveries and theories could not be proved (or disproved) without extremely precise measurements.  At times, science was held back because of the inability to precisely measure some phenomena.  This appears to be the case with privacy.