The New York Times discusses online privacy with Carnegie Mellon University’s Alessandro Acquisti, who has co-authored a draft paper, “Sleights of Privacy: Framing, Disclosures, and the Limits of Transparency” (pdf), on the issue.
Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studies how we make these choices [related to online terms of service]. In a series of provocative experiments, he has shown that despite how much we say we value our privacy — and we do, again and again — we tend to act inconsistently.
Mr. Acquisti is something of a pioneer in this emerging field of research. His experiments can take time. The last one, revealing how Facebook users had tightened their privacy settings, took seven years. They can also be imaginative: he has been known to dispatch graduate students to a suburban mall in the name of science. And they are often unsettling: A 2011 study showed that it was possible to deduce portions of a person’s Social Security number from nothing but a photograph posted online. He is now studying how online social networks can enable employers to illegally discriminate in hiring. […]
Those who follow his work say it has important policy implications as regulators in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere scrutinize the ways that companies leverage the personal data they collect from users. The Federal Trade Commission last year settled with Facebook, resolving charges that it had deceived users with changes to its privacy settings. State regulators recently fined Google for harvesting e-mails and passwords of unsuspecting users during its Street View mapping project. Last year, the White House proposed a privacy bill of rights to give consumers greater control over how their personal data is used. […]
Companies, too, are interested; Microsoft Research and Google have offered Mr. Acquisti research fellowships. Over all, his research argues that when it comes to privacy, policy makers should carefully consider how people actually behave. We don’t always act in our own best interest, his research suggests. We can be easily manipulated by how we are asked for information. Even something as simple as a playfully designed site can nudge us to reveal more of ourselves than a serious-looking one. […]
This is perhaps Mr. Acquisti’s most salient contribution to the discussion. Solutions to our leaky privacy system tend to focus on transparency and control — that our best hope is knowing what our data is being used for and choosing whether to participate. But a challenge to that conventional wisdom emerges in his research. Giving users control may be an essential step, but it may also be a bit of an illusion. […]
To think about privacy more clearly, he argues, technologists need to understand human behavior better. With that end in mind, he will teach next fall in a new, interdisciplinary one-year master’s program at Carnegie Mellon called privacy engineering.
“The technologist in me loves the amazing things the Internet is allowing us to do,” he said. “The individual who cares about freedom is concerned about the technology being hijacked, from a technology of freedom into a technology of surveillance.”