With the popularity and reach of the web, users have never been as concerned and conscious about privacy protection matters as they are today.
Julia Angwin decided to pull the plug. That was it. She needed her privacy. It was time to be in charge of her own information, other than sitting on the back seat. No more just handing in her information to companies and to the government so they can use it freely. No more receiving undesirable marketing mails. No more surveillance. Not anymore. This time, she was taking control of her personal information.
Her first attempt to gain online privacy was by changing her email habits. She stopped using her Gmail account, so Google couldn’t track her activities. It was not enough. She knew she was still vulnerable; she knew she needed to take more extreme measures. That’s when she created Ida Tarbell, her alter ego. Ida Tarbell had a credit card, a phone and a physical address. She ordered books from Amazon, enjoyed dining out, and took yoga classes once in a while. Ida was very aware of her steps and online traces. Angwin was living a double life in the name of privacy.
Although it can appear extreme, Angwin has traits of the current digital citizen. Users have never been so aware of their digital footprint, concerned about their personal data online and, quite often, paranoid. By the end of 2014, the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) released the results of a survey on users’ feelings towards privacy and internet security. It shows that 64% of users are concerned about their online privacy compared to one year ago. When measuring these feelings towards private companies, the percentage is slightly higher -- 74% of users are concerned about companies monitoring online activities and then selling them for commercial purposes.
Although privacy issues have reached a peak of media coverage in 2013 with Edward Snowden’s revelations on mass spying programs conducted by the United States and its allies, the reflections of his disclosure are still unfolding. Privacy advocates work to ensure more efficient means of data protection from tech companies. Across the globe, policymakers have been discussing laws to ensure data protection. Governments are being pressured to revisit laws.
Despite all these actions to guarantee users’ protection, it is still reported a growing concern about online privacy among them for the past year. This attitude cannot only be attributed to Snowden’s case media exposure -- he was only the tipping point that triggered a series of discussions among users. It is a worry that has been building up in the digital world as companies and online customers understand the power of online data and its implications.
"You are in charge": a sense of privacy control
On the first of Google’s privacy pages, the company says: "we keep your personal information private and safe – and put you in control." That’s not how Julia Angwin felt. Her initiatives to trick surveillance is part of an experiment that resulted in the book 'Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance'. In her book, Julia Angwin, an award-winning investigative journalist, describes several techniques she used to hide her online traces, her process and thoughts along the way.
"What I find is that I’m moderately successful at blocking some of it, but then I’m in an arms race I’m not going to win," Angwar explains during a Q&A with JWT Intelligence. "Meaning, any time I make an advance, the people who are tracking me are going to have more money and more sophisticated tools to circumvent whatever it is I use to block it." Despite her efforts, the journalist recognizes that she didn’t feel in total control over her own data during the experiment.
One of the main reasons behind the concern about data privacy is the lack of sense of control felt by the users. The idea of control is closely related to privacy. Users need to feel they have control over their own data in order to feel secure about online privacy. Ditte Brix, currently part of a research team at Aarhus University that investigates the costs of personal data in the retail environment, explains that "consumers are concerned about privacy because they need to feel like they own and control the data. Well, if for example, I buy a dress on Zalando, I want to see, and be able to delete which kind of data they keep about me," she concludes.
Further research expands Brix’s observations to different fields. According to Microsoft’s report on Digital Trends, 75% of global users agree that it is important that companies let them delete information or choose how long their information stay online. Snowden’s revelations can be considered a catalyst in this situation. The media exposure on the event made users lose part of their sense of control over data privacy, creating an unbalanced sense of control between online users, companies and governments.
Yet, this relationship has never been balanced. In an interview for Psychology Today, Laura Brandimarte, privacy and behavioral economics specialist, explains that "the control people perceive over the publication of personal information makes them pay less attention to the lack of control they have over access by others." Meaning that, when users feel they have control of the data, they tend to overlook other privacy matters. In one of her latest research, Brandimarte’s findings show that the more sense of control users have, the more likely they are to disclose personal information. Therefore, companies such as Google and Facebook frame their communication to make customers feel as they are in control. The more data for them, the better.
Control over personal information matters, but it is not sufficient to guarantee users’ data privacy. Not only due to this blurry relationship between control and perception of control, but also due to technical limitations. "Even if you did have a person who wanted to be on top of this and was willing to dedicate themselves full-time to keeping track of what technology can do, and then try to make decisions about what they can post, they still actually don’t have control," computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck explains during a Q&A with TED.
Online privacy: a matter of trust
The loss of sense of control over data is one of the main causes of the growing concern about data privacy among the users. Yet, it is not the only one. Lack of trust — in companies, service providers, government — seems to be part of the reason why users have been evidently concerned about online data privacy. Privacy is closely related to information disclosure, as trust is based on the belief that information disclosed will remain safe. Without trust among users and service providers, there is no common ground for exchange in the digital world. Therefore, lack of trust online leads to worries about online data privacy.
Globally, 57% of users would trust a combined body of technology such as companies, engineers, non-governmental organizations, institutions, and governments to play a major role in ‘running the Internet’, according to the CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey. In the U.S., Pew Research Center’s survey shows that online service providers are among the least trusted entities in terms of data protection. 69% of adults say they are not confident that the records of their activity maintained by the social media networks will remain private, as 66% of adults are not confident that the records of their activity on search engine providers will remain private.
Marketing researchers Deirdre O’Brien and Ann M. Torres have investigated the matter of trust among Facebook users. They found that the trust on Facebook is low — about 25.3% of the users trust the social network, indicating possible worries for the company, as trust is crucial to its development. Although the research recognizes these possible concerns, it also suggests users have been prioritizing social acceptance and popularity, other than trust in the company. Therefore, users continue to use their services. But some believe times are about to change.
"Up until now, Google and Facebook have argued, ‘well, you guys agreed to this’. But if people started not agreeing, then they have to make a different argument," says Angwin. "[Facebook is] losing younger users and I believe that people are becoming more cautious about what they post. It may take a long time to play out, but it is changing," she concludes.
Knowledge: understanding the power of personal data
Knowledge plays an important role in privacy concern. As users are empowered with an understanding of the power of data, trust on online services such as Facebook remains low and privacy concern high. Reports from Pew Research Center on reputation management and social media show that there is a growing consciousness and awareness among online users of their online activity and digital presence. Snowden’s revelation also plays an important role in data protection awareness around the globe. Users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint and more concerned about the possibilities of data usage, as they start to understand the power of their own data to digital companies and governments.
Anders Adelhorst, director of communication at Microsoft, explains that Microsoft is aware of this knowledge shift. "One of the key triggers is the fact that consumers are now more aware of the power of their data, with 49% ‘aware that brands benefit from their data’, and 34% ‘knowing how to trade it for rewards’," as he highlights data from their latest Digital Trends Report. "At Microsoft we have spent a number of years talking about the importance of ensuring advertising is ‘consumer-centric’ and that it represents a value exchange between consumers and brand," Adelhorst concludes.
It is important to differentiate users’ knowledge on the power of data, and users’ knowledge on the use of data. Although users have increased their understanding of how powerful their data is to companies such as Microsoft and Facebook, they don’t necessarily understand how their data is being processed and how it can be used. And uncertainty causes concern among users. "It’s really difficult for people to evaluate how their data may be used against them in the future. It’s very difficult to predict that. We’re just now starting to figure out how that might happen," Angwin explains during an interview about her book. "Certainly, once people realized that employers were looking on Facebook before hiring people, suddenly people who were in the job market started cleaning up their profiles. So once harm arises and people see it for what it is, they react to it. We’re in a period of time where we’re just going to learn more and more about all the ways things can go wrong," she says.
An outlook: what’s next for data privacy?
Although knowledge and privacy concerns are directly related, there is an ongoing debate in the academic field about whether or not privacy concerns reflect on users’ actions. In 2006, digital communication researcher and author Susan B. Barnes coined the term "privacy paradox" to describe the phenomenon that online privacy concerns cannot explain online privacy behaviors. In other words, users don’t change their online actions despite their concern about online privacy — they are still very likely to disclose personal information online. Although the term "privacy paradox" has prevailed over years, scholars are starting to challenge the concept and investigate a shift in relationship between consumers’ concerns and actions.
In 2006, Barnes wrote that "awareness is key to solving the solution. We as individuals need to be more proactive about educating each other and protecting our privacy on the Internet." But is it enough? Can education and awareness solve today’s privacy issues and concerns? Research shows that the solution cannot be limited to that. Economist and data privacy expert Alessandro Acquisti conducted a study to understand if transparency is enough to change people’s behavior in terms of information disclosure. During the study, the researcher told participants how they would use the data of the study, and waited 15 seconds before starting the questions. It only took these seconds for transparency, meaning the previous disclosure of how the data is going to be used, to become useless for users.
"To explain this phenomenon I borrow the term ‘rational ignorance’. Rational ignorance has been used in other fields to refer to situations where people rationally decide to remain ignorant about a certain topic because they expect that the costs involved in making an effort will not be offset by the benefit of getting this information," Acquisti explains. "Sometimes, in privacy, we may feel the same way. We may do everything to protect ourselves and do everything right, and still our data is being compromised or used in manners that we don’t know about and don’t want. And therefore, some of us may give up, and decide not even to start protecting ourselves."
Transparency and knowledge may not be the solution, but it might be the first step for users to regain control over their personal data. Even though Angwin may have failed to do so during her experiment, she still believes a shift in the market is on its way. "I think our social norms are going to also change," Angwin says. "Certainly people have become more aware of privacy the more they use Facebook, and that is probably going to change people’s willingness to agree to terms of services that are too invasive. And then the technology will change. There’s an emerging market of companies that are trying to sell privacy as a service. I imagine that might become a real market."
Fernanda Bartels is a Brazilian journalist and communications expert currently based in Hamburg, Germany. You can reach her on LinkedIn.