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The rollout of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union has provided a new perspective on how privacy needs to be handled and tempered demands for similar laws in the US and other countries.
The rollout of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union has provided a new perspective on how privacy needs to be handled and tempered demands for similar laws in the US and other countries.

Opinion | 'Connecting' privacy and consumer behaviour

  • The Privacy Paradox is a smokescreen designed to sidestep deeply pervasive problems of technology and shift the blame onto the consumers. The key to devising a solution is acknowledging the actual problem

In a recent episode on surveillance on the Netflix documentary, ‘Connected’, Judith Duportail, a French journalist, who discovered that Tinder has over 800 pages of data about her most intimate secrets, says she is still tempted to take a sneak-peek into the app sometimes. How strong is the pull of the algorithm that even those of us who value privacy the most are still willing to engage with it?

On one hand, we yearn for privacy - yet everything we do online seems to contradict that desire. Most of us are guilty of using smartphones with fingerprint and face unlocks but biometric collection for Aadhar sounds like a nightmare. We do not want the Aarogya-Setu App to trace our location because we are worried about surveillance yet we document every minute of the lockdown on our Instagram pages. Something is definitely amiss.

Latif Naseer, the host of the show, ‘Connected’, calls this the ‘Privacy Paradox’. As upset as we are with how modern technology invades our privacy, we still continue to use it. But simply because we continue to engage online, does that mean that we do not care for our privacy rights at all!

Our behaviour is subject to several distorting influences and is prone to manipulation. Economists have shown that heuristics and biases impede the ability of an individual to rationally assess the options available to them. We might have provided consent for our data to be collected but what were the circumstances under which this consent was sought. If the poorest strata of society were asked to disclose personal data to the government in order to obtain a bag of food, would they have refused to give that information? If the only option available is “allow us access to your address-book if you want to use the App", would any user who wants to benefit from the services of the App, not say ‘Yes!’. What privacy is worth does not just depend on ‘whether’ you have asked for consent but also ‘how’ you asked for it!

It is also incorrect to jump to the conclusion that our behaviour is always at odds with our preferences. Our actions are highly contextual. Concluding from my behaviour in a specific context that I generally don’t care about privacy is taking things too far. I may be willing to share images of my lockdown adventures on Instagram with my followers but that doesn’t mean that I am also happy for a stalker to receive that information. The particular context in which I share each particular piece of personal data is relevant. All or any of my personal data being shared in all contexts certainly haunts me.

Later on in the show ‘Connected’, despite being aware of Tinder having a repository of data on him, Naseer’s cousin remains undeterred and says - what people at the Tinder office think of him doesn’t bother him. For him, using Tinder is a risk he must take to find a partner. But simply because he willingly revealed an aspect of his life in this context, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t value privacy at all. It doesn’t imply that he would be indifferent to the government tracking all his movements or wouldn’t complain if he is denied a loan because a credit-scoring agency uncovered some personal data indicating that he has a poor credit risk.

How we behave is not always a reflection of what we prefer. How we behave in a particular context is certainly not reflective of what our preferences are in general. In today’s information age, if people have to keep all information about themselves concealed, they would literally have to live under a rock. Where it is nearly impossible not to share data, the mere fact that we share personal data cannot be used to determine that we don’t care about privacy.

The ‘Privacy Paradox’ is a smokescreen designed to sidestep deeply pervasive problems of technology and shift the blame onto the consumers. The key to devising a solution is acknowledging the actual problem. Incorrectly identifying a false corelation only takes us two steps back. No wonder we are still far from having an effective privacy and data protection regulation!

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of ‘Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Driven Future’.

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