Privacy Paradox

The privacy paradox is typically defined as the inconsistency between attitudes towards privacy and data disclosure behaviors. Although people often express concerns about their privacy, the same individuals are willing to reveal personal data for small rewards. This “attitude-behavior gap,” as some have described it, continues to confound technologists, politicians and researchers alike. If people say they want privacy but their actions speak differently, is what people say or what they do that should guide decision-making about data policy and technology design? The rapid development of the contemporary data extractive economy clearly followed the latter route arguing that no matter what people say they might want, data clearly speaks for itself and convincingly demonstrates that in reality people do not actually care about their privacy very much.

The term “privacy paradox” appeared in the literature about a quarter-century ago but its first uses had other definitions alongside the well-known inconsistencies in attitudes and behaviors. In 1975 Carol Tavris and Susan Sadd published a book entitled “The Redbook Report on Female Sexuality” where they use the notion of the privacy paradox in a different fashion. Tavris and Said consider the fact that change in normative expectations and even legal judgments about things like sex, abortion, sexual orientation and many other potential objects of moral outrage require that the most private of acts and decisions are made public, discussed and dissected in view of all. A decade later Alida Brill used the notion of privacy paradox to describe situations when in order to activate it the privacy guarantee, those that are vulnerable must often first cancel it by revealing or exposing what is most personal and intimate. Here questions of privacy are equated with questions of dignity, of being treated with decency and respect, of defining what constitutes civility.

The contemporary digital notion of the privacy paradox as an attitude-behavior gap is a far cry from this wrenching definition of private pain. Instead, it is a convenient excuse for ignoring the desires and attitudes of individuals in the design of our everyday technologies. “In reality, people actually don’t care” is an enabling mantra of digital entrepreneurs, developers and innovators who are busy disrupting the existing social institutions. Re-examining the context of digital data disclosure from the point of view of Tavris, Sadd and Brill however suggests that there is no paradox. There are merely normative impositions that have no real connection to the realities of desires, obligations and responsibilities that comprise mundane daily practice. Instead, the infrastructures of digital data flows are built based on the expectation of people implicated in these flows being able to express agency. As Laidlaw has rightly said: “Where persons experience an augmentation to their agency this is not an increase in their general capacity to get what they want done. It comes instead as responsibility for particular happenings or states of affairs, and these may include states of affairs that they have rather limited capacity to influence.” The state of privacy is not a paradox, just an impossible state of affairs rendering the individual helpless.

Author: Irina Shklovski

Brill, A. (1990). Nobody’s Business: The Paradoxes of Privacy. Addison-Wesley
Laidlaw, J. (2010). Agency and responsibility: Perhaps you can have too much of a good thing. In M. Lambek (Ed) Ordinary ethics: anthropology, language, and action. NY: Fordham University Press, 143-164.
Tavris, C., & Sadd, S. (1978). The Redbook report on female sexuality. Random House Publishing Group.

Posted in TiP Lexicon.