A few years ago George Loewenstein, professor of behavioural economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, set out to investigate how people think about the consequences of their privacy choices on the internet. He soon concluded that they don't.
In one study, Loewenstein and his collaborators asked two groups of students to fill out an online survey about their lives. Everyone received the same questions, ranging from the innocuous to the embarrassing or potentially incriminating. One group was presented with an official-looking website that bore the imprimatur of their university, and were assured that their answers would remain anonymous. The other group filled out the questions on a garishly coloured website on which the question ‘How BAD Are U???’ was accompanied by a grinning devil. It featured no assurance of anonymity.
Bizarrely, the ‘How BAD Are U???’ website was much more likely to elicit revealing confessions, like whether a student had copied someone else’s homework or tried cocaine. The first set of respondents reacted cautiously to the institutional feel of the first website and its obscurely concerning assurances about anonymity. The second group fell under the sway of the perennial youthful imperative to be cool, and opened up, in a way that could have got them into serious trouble in the real world. The students were using their instincts about privacy, and their instincts proved to be deeply wayward. ‘Thinking about online privacy doesn’t come naturally to us,’ Loewenstein told me when I spoke to him on the phone. ‘Nothing in our evolution or culture has equipped us to deal with it.’