Why we do ‘let our guard down’: Online privacy

By Anne Collier

We care about our online privacy, but we also like convenience a whole lot. And not only convenience, but often a good deal or discount beats out any worry about data security. What do deals and convenience have to do with privacy? A whole lot. An article by Somini Sengupta at the New York Times is all about what is new about “letting our guard down,” as I touched on yesterday. Why we (and our children) do so where privacy’s concerned isn’t just lack of tech smarts or life literacy. Naiveté is probably one component, but just as big is the trade-off we make between privacy and convenience or saving a bit of money.

Somini illustrates that in her first paragraph about giving all kinds of personal information to a discount e-retailer to get a great deal on some cute espadrilles, so do check it out – it might be great fuel for dinner-table or classroom discussion about data security and online privacy (aka media literacy). She clearly spent some time with Prof. Alessandro Acquisti for her article. He’s an online privacy expert, active Facebook user, and behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who told Somini that he’s very concerned that all the freedom (of all kinds, including convenience) that technology affords includes freedom of surveillance by others – surveillance with good or bad aims. It represents a whole range of intentions, whether of marketers just doing business but getting invasive, government trying to protect or monitor, or criminal hackers trying to steal identities or money.

It’s the trade-offs we all need to be aware of. It’s not either/or, private or public. It’s a matter of degree on a spectrum with totally private on one end (a little extreme for most people, by the nature of social media) and total convenience on the other (convenience for us and everybody who can access our data, also a little extreme, and risky, for most people). It’s safer to make conscious choices than just to wing it, which is what people often do when faced with “a great deal” on shoes or anything else. It’s not a good idea to act on something when totally distracted. So we can help our children practice presence – and make conscious decisions when they use digital media. By doing this ourselves and modeling it for them, we can help them think about what they’re sharing based on knowing what the consequences could be: text messages from marketers, someone guessing one’s social security number, getting a ton of ads about shoes? In Somini’s article, Dr. Acquisti talks about sharing birth dates on Facebook and how doing so can help ID thieves guess social security numbers. That’s solid information worth sharing with our kids. They don’t want to be manipulated or tricked. They want to be literate, effective – probably even successful – users of digital media.

This is a two-parter. Part 1 yesterday was: “So we’ve all ‘let our guard down’?”

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