At first blush, it seems safe to say that most of us harbor inconsistent — if not neurotically contradictory — notions about our personal privacy.
We claim to treasure it, yet want badly to be known and seen (posting on Instagram, preening on Twitter). We’re spooked when the same set of advertisements tailgate us, yet become furious when our iPhones have no clue where we are when we search for a restaurant (Hello, I am NOT in Fort Wayne). We loathe that our data is mined and scraped, yet still we opt for Google over DuckDuckGo (never mind that Google is tracking our moves like an assassin); still we use Facebook (never mind that it harvests our personal information like so many internal organs); and we click “I agree” when downloading our apps, knowing full well that those apps are talking to other apps, telling them how much we eat and what music we listen to and when we ovulate.
So the question becomes: Why do I — why do many of us — consistently act in ways that are directly at loggerheads with the privacy values we profess to hold dear? What explains this phenomenon, which experts have taken to calling “the privacy paradox”?
In an attempt at reconciliation — and expiation and clarification — I made lots of phone calls and did lots of reading on the topic in recent weeks, much of it online. By the end, I was Google-stalked almost exclusively by ads about privacy-related books and podcasts. I was that deep in a house of meta-horrors. Here, perhaps, was my most liberating discovery: Our conflicting impulses are actually quite rational. As Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology at Carnegie Mellon, points out, sometimes each of the contradictory beliefs in a paradox is perfectly well founded.
Let’s consider, just as an example, why we are forever skating past the internet’s fine print. In 2008 — 2008! before Instagram, before Uber, before WhatsApp! — two of Acquisti’s colleagues at Carnegie Mellon calculated just how long it would take for the average internet user to read the privacy policies of all the websites he or she visited in a single year. Their answer: more than 30 workdays, at a national opportunity cost of $781 billion.
Which makes blowing off those policies seem quite reasonable. A necessity, even.
So there you have one explanation for this paradox: To fully apprehend our vulnerabilities as digital creatures would require far too much time and energy. More than that: It would require an entirely new set of instincts, a radically different cognitive framework from the one we now possess.
Joyce Searls, a privacy activist and consultant in Santa Barbara, California, is forever reminding people that we’ve barely begun to understand who and what we are on the internet, in part because it’s a disembodied experience. We think we’re alone while we’re buzzing through the mists of cyberspace — that a Google search is akin to thumbing through the Yellow Pages, because it feels just as solitary. But it isn’t. We are being watched, tracked; we simply don’t realize it, because we can’t see it or feel it.
Which suggests another reason we’re less than conscientious about our online habits: Most of us haven’t paid a humiliating price for being watched and tracked. “We’ve had a massive experience of walking around naked with no perceived consequences,” Searls said. Why bother getting dressed?
So we carry on. Even though everyone is mutely collecting our queries, preferences, fetishes, anxieties.
Google. Amazon. Facebook. YouTube. Pandora. Pinterest. The Weather Channel. Reddit. Wikipedia. Major League Baseball. PornHub. Zillow. Your newspaper. Your bank. Your phone carrier. Everyone.
Danah Boyd, founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, perhaps put it best when she wrote we are “public by default, private through effort.”
For most people, that effort — to change how they search, how they buy stuff, how they connect with others and absorb news — is just too great. “There’s a sense that the fight to protect your data is unwinnable,” said Acquisti, of Carnegie Mellon. “You’d have to learn about other tools; it’s costly in time; and it might not even help, because your data is already out there.”
Resignation also explains the privacy paradox. It’s a perfectly rational response to a situation in which humans have very little agency.
If that’s the case, my initial instinct — to call our privacy habits “neurotically contradictory” — is a rather ungenerous one. “It’s not a neurotic contradiction,” Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, said to me in the nicest possible way. “It’s an intolerable contradiction.”
Zuboff is author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” an ambitious fright-opus that examines the new corporate trafficking in human habits and the consequences for our society. She thinks it’s absurd, not to mention blaming the victim, to say that we’re reckless with our privacy online. Rather, she argues, we have no choice. Online is where our individual needs get met, because they aren’t being met in real life. “The real institutional world has abandoned us,” she said.
As she notes: We call the airlines — or our insurance companies or our banks — and spend 10 minutes talking to robots, then another 15 on hold, waiting to speak to an actual person. Is it any wonder we handle matters concerning our health, travel and banking online instead?
Zuboff has equal compassion for our promiscuities on social media, as compromising as they may be to our privacy. Status online has become compensation for living in an environment of economic instability. It might even pay economic dividends. Influencers online can make money. (Two words that turn my blood to ice: Instagram celebrity.)
What many of us don’t realize, when we’re online, is how very much the technologies we’re using are reshaping our ideas about privacy without our notice. Which in turn reshapes our behaviors.
This is one of the core themes of “Re-Engineering Humanity,” by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. It’s not an accident, they argue, that we treat our privacy differently now. The tools we use have been designed with exactly this end in mind.
I think, in my own life, about the first random person whose friend request I accepted on Facebook. I no longer remember his name. I simply remember realizing that he was not, as best as I could discern, a friend of a good friend, but rather had come my way via a loopity skein of loose ties. Still, I clicked “accept.” Before I knew it, I was doing this pretty regularly, especially in 2014, when I had a book to sell. (Status! Visibility! Sales!) And all was fine with this freewheeling system until the day that one of those random people — someone who’d requested my friendship, not the other way around (it was never the other way around) — wrote me a nasty note on Facebook Messenger, letting me know he’d seen me on television and thought me a perfect idiot.
I unfriended him. But I also felt unnerved and rather furious with myself: He had, at that point, presumably seen pictures of my kid, my wedding at City Hall, my 25th high school reunion. How had I decided that such a thing was … fine?
“The danger that ‘privacy’ doesn’t capture is this idea of creep,” said Frischmann, an internet law expert at Villanova University. Like letting that random person into your Facebook circle, or — and this happened in Frischmann’s own life — seeing your child come home from school with a fitness tracking device, which might seem like a win-win (you get free tech; the child might learn about healthy habits) until you consider what it means.
“You’re conditioning a generation of kids to accept bodily surveillance by others without question,” he said.
Our uses of big tech are not only based on our own desires, but the desires of those who designed it. There’s a frightening automaticity to them. (I accept. Click.) It’s as if we’re the robots.
The irony — or maybe it isn’t? — is that the demographic most susceptible to the influence of these technologies might also be the savviest about privacy. It was Danah Boyd who set me straight about this. Her book, “It’s Complicated,” makes it clear that teenagers care deeply about their privacy. The difference is how they go about maintaining it. Some, for instance, just post everything. “They obfuscate,” she explains, “through flooding.”
They know that our minds are inefficient threshers, slow and lousy at separating wheat from chaff. But if you tell everyone everything, no one knows where to look or what matters.
There is, of course, someone else in American life who regularly floods the zone, namely with his Twitter feed. He, too, has been able to divert and confound through this deceptively simple means. According to a recent Gallup poll, his approval rating is now at 46%. Nearly half of Americans don’t think he’s naked at all. They still think, against all odds, that the emperor is wearing clothes.