Your sense of privacy has evolved over millennia – how can it improve tomorrow’s technology?

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Many people think of privacy as a modern invention, an anomaly made possible by the rise of urbanization. If that were the case, acquiescing to the current erosion of privacy might not be particularly alarming.

As calls on the US Congress to protect privacy grow, it’s important to understand its nature. In a policy brief published in Science, we and our colleague Jeff Hancock suggest that understanding the nature of privacy requires a better understanding of its origins.

Research data disproves the idea that privacy is a recent invention. While privacy rights or values ​​may be modern notions, examples of privacy norms and privacy-seeking behaviors abound in all cultures throughout human history and across geography.

As privacy researchers who study information systems, behavioral research, and public policy, we believe that considering the potential evolutionary roots of privacy issues can help explain why people struggle today with confidentiality. It can also help inform the development of technologies and policies that can better align the digital world with the human sense of privacy.

The hazy origins of privacy

Humans have sought and attempted to manage privacy since the dawn of civilization. People from ancient Greece to ancient China were concerned with the limits of public and private life. The male head of the household, or pater familias, in ancient Roman families would have his slaves move their beds to a remote corner of the house when he wanted to spend the evening alone.

Attention to privacy is also found in pre-industrial societies. For example, the Mehinacu tribe in South America lived in communal housing but built private homes miles away so members could isolate themselves.

Evidence of a tendency towards privacy can even be found in the sacred texts of ancient monotheistic religions: the Qur’an’s instructions against mutual espionage, the Talmud’s advice not to place windows overlooking neighbors’ windows, and the biblical story of Adam and Eve covering their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit.

The search for privacy appears to be both culturally specific and culturally universal. Norms and behaviors change according to peoples and times, but all cultures seem to show a will for this. Researchers of the last century who have studied the history of privacy provide an explanation for this: privacy concerns may have evolutionary roots.

According to this narrative, the need for privacy evolved from the physical needs of protection, security, and self-interest. The ability to sense the presence of others and to choose exposure or isolation offers an evolutionary advantage: a “sense” of intimacy.

Humans’ sense of privacy helps them regulate the boundaries of public and private with effective and instinctive mastery. You notice when a stranger walks too close behind you. You usually drop the topic of conversation when a distant acquaintance approaches while you are engaged in an intimate discussion with a friend.

Privacy blind spots

An evolutionary theory of privacy helps explain the barriers people face in protecting personal information online, even when they claim to care about privacy. Human senses and the new digital reality do not match. Online, our senses fail us. You don’t see Facebook tracking your activity in order to profile and influence you. You don’t hear law enforcement take your picture to identify you.

Humans may have evolved to use their senses to alert them to privacy risks, but those same senses put them at a disadvantage when trying to identify privacy risks in the online world. Online sensory cues are lacking, and even worse, dark patterns – malicious website design elements – trick those senses into perceiving a risky situation as safe.

This may explain why privacy notice and consent mechanisms – so popular with tech companies and for a long time among policy makers – fail to solve the privacy problem. They place the burden of understanding privacy risks on consumers, with notices and settings that are often ineffective or manipulated by platforms and tech companies.

These mechanisms fail because people react viscerally to privacy breaches, using their senses more than their cognition.

Protecting privacy in the digital age

An evolving account of privacy shows that if society is determined to protect people’s ability to manage the boundaries of public and private in the modern age, privacy must be woven into the very fabric of digital systems. When the evolving technology of cars made them so fast that driver reaction times became unreliable tools to avoid accidents and collisions, policymakers stepped in to drive technological responses such as seat belts and, later, airbags.

Ensuring privacy online also requires a coordinated combination of technological and policy interventions. Basic data protection safeguards, such as those found in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines on Privacy and Cross-Border Personal Data Flows, can be achieved with technologies appropriate.

Examples include data analysis techniques that preserve anonymity, such as those enabled by differential privacy, privacy-enhancing technologies such as user-friendly encrypted messaging services and anonymous browsing, and personalized smart privacy assistants , which learn users’ privacy preferences.

These technologies have the potential to preserve privacy without undermining modern society’s reliance on data collection and analysis. And since the incentives for industry players to exploit the data economy are unlikely to disappear, we believe that regulatory interventions that support the development and deployment of these technologies will be necessary.


Laura Brandimarte, Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems, University of Arizona and Alessandro Acquisti, Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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