Alessandro Acquisti Discusses Privacy Attitudes and Behaviors

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on November 22, 2010


In this video interview with TAP, Alessandro Acquisti discusses his work at Carnegie Mellon in the area of privacy. He explains how research in behavioral economics can help us make sense of apparent inconsistencies in some of our decisions. He also addresses differences – both cultural and legal – in approaches to privacy around the world. 

Part One – view video
Professor Acquisti’s recent research is within the realm of ‘behavioral economics of privacy.’ As he defines it, this branch of economics combines traditional economic methodologies and analysis with the psychological understanding of the decision-making process of the individual. He notes that there are often biases in decision making, and it is these biases that have great application in the area of privacy.

The discussion continues with an examination of the cultural and legal perspectives of privacy around the world. Professor Acquisti points out that privacy is an innate need all human beings have. It is not a modern invention. He then outlines differing attitudes about privacy and government intervention to safeguard privacy across several continents.

Part Two – view video
Professor Acquisti continues his discussion of the behavioral economics of privacy by sharing his observations of some behavioral changes toward online privacy. He points out that even just five years ago, when Facebook was becoming prevalent, things that seemed scary or creepy at the time now have become fairly acceptable.
Additionally, Professor Acquisti states that he feels it is possible, with current technologies, to have both security and privacy, and to not have to choose one over the other. He points out that for any conceivable transaction you can think of –payments, browsing, e-mail, voting, medical data –there exists technology to allow for secure and private transactions. He emphasizes that the big issue is an economic one, and examines why these technologies have not been successful in the marketplace.

Professor Acquisti was recently interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace program, “Why We Give Up Our Privacy So Easily”. In this segment, Acquisti says the value we put on privacy can easily shift. For some individuals, providing their location or credit card information in return for a discount now seems normal.

Five years ago, if someone told you that there'd be lots of people going online to show, to share with strangers their credit card purchases, you probably would have been surprised, you probably would thought, "No, I can't believe this. I wouldn't have believed this."

But Acquisti says, when new technologies are presented as the norm, people accept them that way.

Alessandro Acquisti is an Associate Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University. He is also the co-director of the CMU Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR). His work investigates the economic and social impact of IT, and in particular the economics and behavioral economics of privacy and information security, as well as privacy in online social networks.