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The false choice of online privacy

Study shows ‘surveillance for free stuff’ is not just a bad deal — it also creates disempowered consumers

June 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

In 2015, the Faustian bargain put forth by many technology companies is a familiar one: Surrender your personal data, and a world of ad-sponsored technological convenience awaits you.

With data-driven Web giants such as Facebook and Google, those rewards are free services such as social media, email and cloud storage. Other companies make more literal data-for-dollars transactions, offering discounts to customers who volunteer their personal information or agree to have their online habits and preferences tracked.

The conventional wisdom surrounding this deal with the Big Data devil has been that most people don’t realize they’re getting the short end of the stick. If grandma could only fathom the degree of intrusive tracking she is opting into by using Facebook or researching symptoms on WebMD, the argument goes, she might not be so eager to volunteer all that information.

But a new study (PDF) from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication has found that a majority of Americans know full well that giving up their privacy for free services is a bum deal. And despite being deeply troubled by it, they do so resigned to the idea that they simply can’t control what data companies collect about them. In other words, the idea that consumers confidently volunteer their data as the result of a calculated cost-benefit analysis — cheerily trumpeted by marketers and Silicon Valley types to justify exploiting that data for profit — is bogus.

In reality, an overwhelming majority of consumers reject surveillance of their habits and personal information as a fair price to pay for deals and services. According to the study, 91 percent of Americans disagree that it’s fair for companies to collect personal information without them knowing in exchange for deals or discounts, while 72 percent disagree with the idea that “what companies know about me from my behavior online cannot hurt me.”

Given the despicable state of for-profit consumer surveillance, the study isn’t surprising. For example, little-known data-brokerage companies such as Acxiom and Experian make millions trading shockingly sensitive personal information to the highest bidder. Everything is up for sale, from “life event triggers” such as a daughter’s fatal car crash to lists of rape victims and AIDS patients ascertained from web search queries. And while companies claim they make this information anonymous, researchers have found it incredibly easy to “re-identify” the people behind the data points.

Nevertheless, the study asserts that consumers’ distaste for data collection has nothing to do with their knowledge of online surveillance schemes. Rather, Americans are willing to part with their data because they believe that hiding from ubiquitous corporate surveillance is ultimately futile. In fact, the study’s authors write, “those who know the most about these marketing practices are more likely to be resigned” to the status quo.

Where does this feeling of helplessness come from?

It could be that paying for something with money no longer guarantees you won’t also pay for it with your data. With sophisticated web-tracking programs, Internet service providers such as Verizon and AT&T have shown they no longer have any qualms about turning paying customers into quarries of data to be mined and sold to advertisers. 

Features such as Facebook’s ‘Privacy Check-up’ function only to create the illusion of an informed and empowered user who doesn’t actually exist.

But the study suggests it’s none other than the web-marketing companies themselves who have created the false idea that consumers are making conscious privacy tradeoffs to justify their surveillance business model.

“By misrepresenting the American people and championing the tradeoff argument, marketers give policymakers false justifications for allowing the collection and use of all kinds of consumer data often in ways that the public find objectionable,” the authors write. “Moreover, the futility we found, combined with a broad public fear about what companies can do with the data, portends serious difficulties not just for individuals but also — over time — for the institution of consumer commerce.”

Corporations and governments alike have a strong interest in maintaining this false tradeoff narrative. By re-framing the privacy debate as a transactional balancing act — an even trade of privacy for convenience, savings or security — the forces of surveillance make us believe they’re acting to protect our privacy when in truth they’re simply trying to make us more comfortable with the status quo.

Consider Facebook’s “Privacy Check-up,” a recently added prompt featuring a cartoon dinosaur urging users to refine who can see their information on the site. From a public relations standpoint this isn’t a terrible idea, especially after an incident in 2009 in which the company quietly switched everyone’s default privacy settings to “public.”

But ultimately, such features function only to create the illusion of an informed and empowered user who doesn’t actually exist. They don’t address the fact that Facebook is still tracking your every click, keystroke and page view. Nor do they acknowledge that Facebook claims the right to do virtually anything it wants with that data — as evidenced recently by the company's “emotional contagion” study, which secretly manipulated millions of non-consenting users by changing the stories appearing in their news feeds.

It’s no wonder people feel helpless to control their information, given that the platforms we use to communicate are designed to produce helplessness. This explains why privacy changes on services such as Facebook are always presented in terms of making users more comfortable — which is to say, making them comfortable enough to passively accept the fact that they have no privacy.

This rhetoric is similar to that of authority figures who seek to preserve, rather than abolish, the intrusive National Security Agency surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. President Barack Obama recently stated that the USA Freedom Act, passed by Congress earlier this month, would “provide greater public confidence in these programs.” Apart from some transparency tweaks, the bill only reformed one program — the dragnet collection of all Americans’ phone records — which a federal appeals court had already ruled illegal.

But the core problem was never that Americans weren’t “confident” enough in the NSA or the phone records program; it was that it impinged on millions of peoples’ privacy and blatantly violated the law. Moreover, the program didn’t help foil a terrorist plot even once, invalidating the idea that Americans were trading privacy for security.

The University of Pennsylvania study is further proof that Americans don’t want to be more confident about the various corporate and governmental surveillance apparatuses that monitor them — they want the surveillance to stop.

As long as the false narrative of privacy tradeoffs persists, those demands will likely go unanswered. Only by recognizing the facade will it finally start to come undone.

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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