Are You Giving Up on Online Privacy?

Facebook’s privacy setting page. Photo by: Diaan Mynhardt

Privacy cynicism: Faced with a never-ending deluge of threats, online users are simply giving up on privacy.

An international group of researchers led by Dr Christian Hoffmann, Professor of Communication Management at the University of Leipzig, Germany, has explained the perplexing divide between internet users’ consistently high privacy concerns, and reliably low privacy protection behaviour.

Hoffmann and his group propose that when faced with supposedly overwhelming privacy threats, users develop an attitude of “privacy cynicism”, a resigned failure to care about one’s own privacy, accompanied by neglected privacy protection behaviour.

In their article, Privacy cynicism: A new approach to the privacy paradox[1], published last December in Cyberpsychology, an online, peer-reviewed journal of psychosocial research on cyberspace, Hoffmann and his colleagues explain the importance of the concept of privacy cynicism. Previous studies found that while users might express significant privacy concerns, they engage in privacy protection behaviour only sparingly. This is a behavioural paradox that goes against long-established behavioural theories. Privacy cynicism, however, provides the key.

I’m quite careless with my data

As a coping mechanism, privacy cynicism allows users to take advantage of online services such as Facebook or online banking despite not trusting their providers. Users do this by convincing themselves that online privacy is simply out of their own hands. By laying the blame for likely future damages at the feet of unavoidable external forces, users bypass any cognitive dissonance they might have while they engage in supposedly paradoxical behaviour.

“I’m quite careless with my data. It’s illogical to think that you can somehow obfuscate your digital footprint given the number of activities we do online. You would have to become some kind of dropout living in the mountains”, said one anonymous participant in the study, perfectly illustrating the sentiment.

Questioning their ability to protect their privacy

Harbouring such an attitude towards privacy is not without its dangers. Cynically neglecting one’s own privacy can become particularly serious, especially when combined with poor internet skills. Risky behaviour is bound to increase as one repeatedly steers clear of opportunities to develop healthy privacy protection skills. Long term and widespread privacy cynicism is also likely to contribute to another skills divide, between those who know how to protect themselves and those who don’t, wrote Hoffmann.

The release of secret information on government programmes such as PRISM, by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, as well as a multitude of similar revelations by others, have led to an increased number of internet users questioning their ability to protect their privacy and limit the spread of their personal data online.

Earlier research into privacy behaviour has investigated why users choose to disclose considerable amounts of personal information online despite reporting privacy concerns. The idea of a “privacy paradox”, first proposed in 2006 by Professor Susan Barnes at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was an attempt to understand the differences between privacy concerned adults, and “digital teenagers” who seem to disclose every detail of their lives online. Privacy cynicism has grown out of subsequent research on the privacy paradox.

Hoffmann and his colleagues, Dr Christoph Lutz of the Norwegian Business School in Oslo, and Dr Giulia Ranzini of the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, believe that this initial research is merely a first shot at formulating the concept of privacy cynicism, and should be treated as a starting conversation on the topic. It is their hope that future research will further explore the concept.

Hoffmann CP, Lutz C, Ranzini G. Privacy cynicism: A new approach to the privacy paradox. Cyberpsychology. (accessed 13 Apr2017). [Source]

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