German researchers have found that—heated rhetoric about privacy aside—people are willing to give away personal information in exchange for a bargain. They’re even willing to give it away for nothing.
The Social Science Research Center in Berlin brought together 225 students at the Technical University there and offered them the chance to buy the same DVDs from two different online stores. Each store required the customers’ name and postal and email addresses. But one store also required date of birth and personal monthly income. That store also offered a one-euro discount on every item. Of 42 purchases made by this group, 39 opted to give away the additional personal information to get the discount.
What puzzled the researchers is that even when the discount was taken away, the two stores attracted equal business. “Thus the more privacy friendly firm failed to attract more customers even though prices were equal at both stores,” the study says (PDF here).
In spite of all of this, in a post-study questionnaire, 75% of the participants said they “have a very strong interest in data protection” and 95% said they “are interested in the protection of their personal information.” So they say one thing and do another. The rhetoric about privacy should perhaps be judged accordingly.
At the same time, German media and government are quite heated about privacy. The New York Times separately noted the irony that Germans by their actions don’t show such profound concern about privacy. To which a German government official who’s going after Google and Facebook told The Times that “his agency was trying to protect consumers from themselves.”
Whoa. Any time a government says it is trying to protect its citizens from themselves, beware. That is a government that is trying to get citizens to behave the way it wants them to behave, whether they want to or not. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what government should do? And beware media that keep telling the public what it thinks they should care about whether they care about it or not. They, too, are out of touch.
Yes, privacy matters. But we need to get past the rhetoric, past the heat, and examine what people really do, what risks they are really under, what benefits they pass up when they decide not to share. That’s what my book will examine.
(Here’s my presentation in Berlin on the German privacy paradox.)