Law in the Internet Society

Privacy Reform and the Heuristics of Privacy Utility

While education may be the long term solution for sparking privacy reform, the pace at which people are forfeiting their personal data online suggests that more immediate action is necessary. In a climate where a desire for privacy is often construed as an implication of guilt, mending the public opinion towards privacy involves understanding how people actually perceive utility from privacy in the first place. Though the inherent value of privacy is rooted in its ties with safety, individuality and autonomy, human engagement with it might also be attributable to other, exogenous factors.

Humankind’s relationship with wealth may reflect some of these factors. Dusenberry’s influential “relative income theory” (RIT) suggested that spending habits are not just a product of one’s absolute income, but also the position of their income relative to external benchmarks to which one compares oneself. Subsequent studies corroborated the theory that status-relative externalities are influential. Kahneman and Tversky’s “Prospect Theory” posited that one’s economic behavior involves a comparison between their own financial position and “neutral reference points”—aggregated societal norms such as median income. In 1996, Clark and Oswald recognized that these subjective exercises affect not only qualitative economic behavior but also one’s general sense of emotion and wellbeing.

Should engagement with privacy share the externally contingent attributes of its satisfaction with income, a viable alternative avenue for shaping public attitude on privacy may exist. A plausible short-term strategy could be to paint privacy hygiene as a status symbol—an asset with which one must “keep up with the Jones’.” Perhaps the same envious social fabric that prompts people to flaunt every life detail on Facebook can spark the motivation to combat exploitative technology.

Such a conclusion rests on a tenuous link and faces uncertain parameters of actionability: how do we know if our privacy behavior is influenced similarly to our economic behavior? Even if parallels exist, how do those qualities manifest in the context of privacy? How does one go about “comparing” privacy, how would one measure privacy, and against what is one comparing? While no absolute answers are apparent, promising guidance exists.

Recent developments in RIT identify comparative mechanisms that seem compatible with a social scheme of comparing privacy. A 2010 study suggested that perceived income satisfaction is causally related to intragroup income comparison. It found that where one’s income ranked relative to peers of similar locale, gender, and age best explained the variance in life satisfaction. While this finding doesn’t exhaustively define one’s “in-group,” the structure that it does test (age, location, etc.) translates to a framework that makes sense in the context of privacy. One’s perception of their privacy practices would be directly “ranked” against those with whom they interact: neighbors, colleagues, family and friends. The question of measurement remains tricky, but as societal tech literacy progresses, it’s plausible that lay people will recognize and compare the actions they take to protect their digital privacy.

The boundaries within which these comparisons would be made seem to line up with those in which income predicts satisfaction. Thus, the remaining question is whether these similar factors warp our privacy behaviors the same way that they do our economic behavior.

Obtaining empirical evidence in either direction is implausible, but qualitative comparison offers some circumstantial evidence of value. In particular, the “hicksploitation” phenomenon and “anti-vaxx” movement provide channels of guidance. “Hicksploitation” refers to a burgeoning array of media that portrays disproportionately negative qualities of working class and rural Americans. Notable examples include “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey-Boo-Boo.” While not explicitly derogatory, these programs highlight stereotypical “redneck” aspects of people’s lives, and their wide success across demographics suggests that they appeal to audiences that aren’t engaged because they find the content relatable or informative. The memes and derivative remarks made about the shows online suggest that a significant draw for the genre is to induce laughter at the expense of the cast members. Many viewers seemed to find satisfaction and pride in their own, subjectively “superior” status when watching the plights of perceived inferiors.

Much like “hicksploitation” figures, “anti-vaxx” advocates are enthusiastically lampooned for their perceived incompetence. Even if the public health danger posed by anti-vaxx groups warrants much of the hostility they receive, it does not fully account for the volume of attention they attract. Few of the millions of social media anti-vaxx discussions contain substantive argument or advocacy proposals. Most comments don’t even communicate anger or disgust. Rather, the majority of anti-vaxx discussion on the internet involves demeaning and caricaturing its advocates advocates for comedic purposes.

In relation to privacy, these examples illustrate how hierarchical, comparative perceptions of intelligence, class, and culture influence one’s own engagement and subjective satisfaction. Even if privacy engagement isn’t as polarizing as these phenomena, both provoke the socializations into which we are indoctrinated and can induce our prejudices towards tokens of social capital.

The potential relationship between privacy engagement and comparative social perceptions provides an optimistic outlet for shaping public opinion. RIT developments suggest that touting safety or warning of harm may not be the only tools for selling people on privacy. A second finding in the 2010 study suggests that one’s comparative analysis skews upwards: “people compare to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than those below.” For privacy advocacy, this could mean that ingroup leaders are more influential than they may think. This idea taken with the rank-RIT suggests that a single voice can influence a group regardless of that group’s current level of privacy engagement. The anecdotes from the anti-vaxx and “hicksploitation” examples reveal that “downward” facing advocacy efforts can also be effective. This doesn’t require vilification of the unengaged, but it should compel us to share stories when we hear about or experience exploitation. The social circles in which we operate profoundly influence our attitudes towards important issues, and one doesn’t need to be particularly proficient in privacy to carry gravity within their sphere of influence. Broad education may be the long-term solution, but in the meantime, small acts can have meaningful, immediate effect.

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r4 - 17 Jan 2020 - 04:03:44 - AnthonyMahmud
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