Guy tagging into the building.

Do we really value our privacy?

03 April 2013. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

How much do we really care about our personal privacy? Research suggests less than we might like to think.

The New York Times has published a profile of Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioural economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  Mr Acquisti and his colleagues have observed that while individuals say they value their privacy highly, they can nonetheless be persuaded to relinquish long-term privacy for short-term rewards and are seldom willing to adopt privacy protective technologies. Mr Alessandri's research has also noted how people can be manipulated into disclosing more personal information to third parties if they think those third parties will limit the further disclosure of that information, i.e. the perception of control over one's personal information will, paradoxically, encourage greater disclosure.

As the New York Times notes, such research has important policy implications as legislators work out how to protect privacy rights when marketable personal data has never been more widely available.  But the research should also remind us that personal conceptions of privacy will often be underdeveloped, irrational and inconsistent.  In the UK at least, it's only in recent years that people have had legally protectable rights of privacy.  It's not surprising, then, that many people will have conflicting ideas about what bits of their private lives they want to protect and how valuable they consider them to be.  Judges, legislators and regulators need to bear this in mind when assessing competing claims in the privacy arena.