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Study: Consumers Care About and Manage Their Data Privacy, But Policy Impediments Remain

Contrary to depictions of online sharing behavior as careless, a new review of privacy research concludes that individuals fundamentally still care about their privacy online and take numerous steps to manage and protect it. But society faces steep psychological and economic hurdles that make desirable privacy nearly unattainable, especially through individual action alone. The researchers also concluded that approaches to privacy management that rely purely on market forces and consumer responsibility have failed.

The article, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Arizona, is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. It reviewed research on privacy from multiple disciplines, focusing on psychological and economic factors influencing both consumers’ desire and consumers’ ability to protect their privacy, and drawing policy suggestions.

The article tackles the often-repeated claim that, under the assault of novel information technologies, privacy is dead—both in the sense that it is no longer achievable, and that concern about privacy is fading. The empirical research reviewed in the article provides evidence against the latter assertion, including survey responses, field observations, and experimental results, all showing that consumers fundamentally care about privacy and often act on that concern. Actions to protect privacy are in fact so ubiquitous and second-nature that they often go unnoticed.

“People’s opportunities for privacy are notably shrinking,” says Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information policy and public policy at CMU’s Heinz College. “And yet, across history, individuals have revealed a remarkable tenacity in their attempts to carve out private spaces against all odds.”

Researchers addressed questions such as whether consumers care about privacy and whether individuals can effectively manage privacy online. They also examined what is known in the literature as the privacy paradox—the apparent gap between people’s self-reported attitudes, concerns, and desires regarding privacy and their actual behaviors.

The researchers reviewed several different approaches to privacy management, including reliance on market forces, privacy “nudges” (e.g., changing social media default visibility settings, making the consequences of privacy choices more obvious to users), or considering data as property (so users could trade rights with organizations over the collection and use of their information, or receive “dividends” for the usage of their data).

But each of these ideas has drawbacks, and if these steps fail to produce desired outcomes, the researchers suggest that comprehensive policy intervention may be needed. Only with policy changes will citizens be in the position to manage privacy effectively and to their best advantage, the authors suggest. However, for both psychological and economic reasons, the collective impetus for adequate intervention is often countervailed by powerful interests that oppose it. Several large U.S. firms have significant resources and incentives to lobby and influence public opinion in directions that propel privacy policies in their favor; in contrast, the most privacy-conscious individual has limited ability or motivation to influence such policies.

“While these conclusions may appear pessimistic, the resiliency—and apparent universality—of the human drive for privacy provides hope for a future that balances privacy with data sharing and utility,” said Laura Brandimarte, assistant professor of management information systems at the University of Arizona, who coauthored the study.  Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at CMU, who also coauthored the study, underlined the ultimate conclusion of the paper, that “We need systematic, fundamental change in the way we approach the policy of privacy.”

The research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Summarized from an article in Journal of Consumer Psychology, Secrets and Likes: The Drive for Privacy and the Difficulty of Achieving It in the Digital Age by Acquisti, A (Carnegie Mellon University), Brandimarte, L (University of Arizona), and Loewenstein, G (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2020. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the #1 academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit