Privacy paradox: Technology amplifies pitfalls of human nature - Southern Business Review


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Monday, March 19, 2018

Privacy paradox: Technology amplifies pitfalls of human nature

We all do stupid things.

Sometimes the stupid things we do are just honest mistakes that support the fact that no one is perfect. Sending a text to your mother that was meant for your girlfriend, hitting "Reply All" when you meant to just click "Reply," locking yourself out of the house — minor infractions that none of us are exempt from.

But sometimes the stupid things we do, often with the greatest of consequences, appear totally avoidable.  A terrible investment, a personal transgression, an ill-advised email — behaviors that beg the question:  "Why did I do that?"

In our modern digital world, many "what was I thinking" mistakes are centered around the ease and influence of technology.

Our technology knows the who, what and when of every call, email and text we send.  It knows where we drive, what we photograph and what we read.  It knows our Social Security numbers, birthdays, even our favorite places to eat.

Whether we like it or not, our mobile devices, computers and social media accounts reveal the story of our lives.   

The "why did I do that" tech blunders tend to occur when our private digital footprints become public.  

We see this not only in the news with public figures, governments and big companies, but also in very personal ways when a private video or picture goes viral: Nothing we do digitally is private. 

We all know this.  The calls for digital privacy are consistently strong.

But something is amiss.  

Studies show that despite our stated fears around digital privacy, we behave as if we have no fears at all. Social psychologists dub this the "the privacy paradox."

Publicly viewable Facebook and Instagram posts are at an all-time high with users sharing everything from their religious convictions to their exercise routines for the world to see.  The average smartphone user has over 630 personal pictures stored on their (most likely) unencrypted phone. More than 250 billion completely unsecured emails and texts are sent across the world every day. 

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Without taking the time to read the fine print, most of us gladly click "I Agree" to allow any website to track and sell our personal information.  We accept things like "tracking cookies" and targeted ads without a second thought.  

So certainly, if you look at the average user's behavior, privacy is of no concern at all.   
Why is this?   Why would anyone risk sending a text or storing a very private photo when there are so many examples of others committing the same errors and suffering the disastrous repercussions?

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This mismatch between what we say we want and what we actually do want is nothing new.

Long before the digital age, humans have proven time and again that the relation between their values and behaviors is weak.  It’s driven by what behavioral economists call the "third-person effect."  The theory is that individuals will perceive mass media stories to have greater effects on other people than on themselves. 

In other words, negative consequences of risky actions only happen to the other guy.

It's true. Despite mass warnings on everything from texting while driving to using strong passwords, most of us deep inside believe we will personally be OK.  Convenience and instant gratification tend to win out. It's only in hindsight that we can ask "Why did I do that?"

The challenges around digital privacy are not always technical. Sometimes they're just human nature. Encrypt your phone. Glance through those user agreements. And think twice before you send that selfie to your mom.  
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba, a Nashville IT consulting, software development and website design firm. Visit Atiba online at and