In Privacy Paranoia Part I, I questioned the assumption that people are intrinsically suspicious of data collection efforts and generally unwilling to volunteer personal information, by walking through a few everyday examples of information sharing.
However, while there are an abundance of scenarios and circumstances under which you and I are happy to reveal personal data, that does not change the stubborn fact that users generally are suspicious of data collection efforts and in many cases would choose NOT to share personal information. (Except for a lack of patience for reading fine print and paying attention to default settings on the software they install.)
Privacy Paranoia Part II addresses this apparent inconsistency which clears the path to Part III, which will address concrete ways to change user attitudes toward data collection.
The general public’s seemingly contradictory relationship with information-sharing can be explained away once we, as web service providers, accept responsibility for the reaction we provoke in our users.
In the real world, information-sharing works as a quid pro quo where both sides agree to terms they can live with and exchange information accordingly.
In the world of online services, we as service providers are attempting to engage our users in this exchange, but we present it as a one-sided deal. You give, we take. The terminology we use as an industry belie our inward focus. We don’t engage in information-sharing with our users. We collect data. We mine data. We warehouse data.
So, the million-dollar question is: What do we need to provide our users in order to engage them in an information-exchange with us?
1. Transparency of intent. As the user, if I know why you need the information you are requesting, I am more likely to give it to you, even if there are opportunities for you to re-purpose my information in ways I don’t intend.
2. Personal benefit (If I need to tell you.)
- I give complete strangers on eBay my home address, in exchange for having my purchase arrive on my doorstep.
- I tell my credit card company what I purchased, where I purchased and when I purchased it, in exchange for being free from the constraints of managing cash.
1 and 2 are as far as most people go. And many people have pretty low standards for 2.
3. Reputation. What is the reputation of the person/entity that is requesting this information? Are they going to maliciously misuse my information? Are they going to take care with my information? Are they even capable of understanding what “taking care with my information” means? (As in, are they clueless enough to transmit my credit card number in plain text?)
4. What else could the requester do with this information? How valuable, how sensitive is the information I’m giving out?
Today, few people weigh these factors systematically, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. The services, organizations and businesses asking for phone numbers, addresses, gender, income, credit card numbers and social security numbers aren’t holding up their end of the quid pro quo.
1. Transparency into the Hows, Whys, Whens and What-fors
2. Exchanging data rather than Collecting data
As a result, in place of rational evaluation, habit and confusing design rule. Some people run their own email servers and devise dozens of aliases to throw ‘Big Brother’ off the trail. Others happily hand over their data in exchange for the famous free bar of chocolate in the subway.
This makes it very hard to predict how the general public will deal with information-sharing services. The reaction could run the gamut from paranoid revulsion to earnest enthusiasm to blasé indifference. This in turn makes the quality of the data we hope to collect and build a service around, unreliable and uneven. We want everyone to be represented in the data pool, paranoiacs included.
Therefore, if we want to neutralize the randomizing influence of personality, we must find a way to walk people through evaluating questions 1-4 in a rational and considered way; and hopefully the answers they come up with convince them that participating in the information-sharing community is in their best interest.
How do we do that?