“Even when Americans do weigh [the options], they do so on incorrect information,” Turow said.
Which is why the notion of a trade-off – consumers knowingly and willingly sharing their information with marketers as part of a value exchange – is a little wonky.
Although a Pew study released Thursday found that the majority of Americans are, in certain circumstances, willing to share their information if they get some sort of value in return, Pew also noted that “consumers are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that information once it’s been collected.”
“In the real world, people who exchange data for benefits are more likely to do it when they’re resigned, rather than as the result of a cost-benefit analysis,” Turow said. “[But] most Americans don’t have sufficient knowledge to make that cost-benefit analysis.”
Turow acknowledged that his view of the world “may sound really dark,” but that it’s important to confront these issues when we see them play out in everyday life.
“People do these things online, in stores and in apps not because they’re thinking rationally, but because they feel they have no other choice if they want to live in the world,” Turow said.
But is there actually a second fallacy at play – that of consumer as victim, powerless to control the technology that’s taking over their lives?
Rather than feeling downtrodden and helpless, many consumers are “thrilled or even delirious” about new technology, said Omer Tene, VP of research and education at the International Association of Privacy Professionals.
Look at Uber, the newest iPhone, Fitbit – people love their tech.
“There seems to something more complex at play here and I think we see it in other contexts like, ‘I care about my health, but I still eat a cheeseburger,’ or ‘I care about the environment, but I still drive a four-wheel drive,’” Tene said. “Yes, consumers are ignorant and they just don’t know, but I think [Turow’s] surveys and research show that the more informed people are, the more resigned they become. Maybe it’s better to just be blissfully ignorant.”
Perhaps, but the best-case scenario would be to find some middle ground. It’s a “false dilemma that privacy means we can’t have spectacular convenience in our life,” Hoofnagle said.
“One can look at our work and say it’s anti-technology, but I would argue strongly that it’s not,” said Hoofnagle, who described himself as an early adopter. “Much of what we call innovation does not depend on personal information. It’s a straw man that we have to recognize and deal with. You don’t need personal information for Uber, but if you do need personal information, you can have rules around it.”
One might not need PII to power Uber, but major players like Google, Facebook and The New York Times all rely on data to power their businesses.
That said, FTC commissioner Julie Brill echoed Hoofnagle’s sentiment with an analogy.
“Outside of the privacy sphere, companies have excelled at helping consumers use and manage complex systems,” Brill said. “Cars are now computers on wheels, but we can all drive them because companies have kept the complexity behind interfaces that are easy to use. Companies can do the same for privacy by building the right tools and understanding what is important to individuals.”