People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with different people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. —Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
If you have something you don't want anyone to know about, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. —Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt
The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that nobody cares about online privacy, except maybe creeps, wingnuts, and old people. Sure, a lot of us might say that we don't like being tracked and targeted, but few of us actually bother to check the "do not track" option in on our web browsers. Millions of people have never adjusted their Facebook privacy settings. According to a recent Pew survey, only small fractions of internet users have taken steps to avoid being observed by hackers (33 percent), advertisers (28 percent), friends (19 percent), employers (11 percent), or the government (5 percent).
What's going on here? The short answer is a lot of pretty twisted psychological stuff, which behavioral scientists are only now starting to understand.
People were willing to accept wildly varying sums of money in exchange for giving out their email address—from $0 to $100,000
Our uneasy relationship with the internet begins with the fact we don't really know who can see our data and how they might exploit it. "Not even the experts have a full understanding of how personal data is used in an increasingly complicated market," points out Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti, who researches the psychology behind online privacy perceptions. Behavioral economists often refer to this problem as information asymmetry: One party in a transaction (Facebook, Twitter, advertisers, the NSA) has better information than the other party (the rest of us).
The upshot is that we can't agree on what our privacy is worth. A study last year by Acquisti and Jens Grossklags of the University of California-Berkeley found that people were willing to accept wildly varying sums of money in exchange for giving out their email address and information about their hobbies and interests—from $0 to $100,000.
Our struggle to weigh the importance of online privacy reflects a classic case of what economists call "bounded rationality." That is, the ability to decide things rationally is constrained by a blinkered understanding of how those decisions might affect us.
Our bounded rationality on privacy matters makes us more vulnerable to all sorts of persuasion tactics aimed at getting us to disclose things. Behold the following behavioral examples of how, even if we really care about online privacy, we're easily prodded into behaving as though we don't.
1. Our willingness to sell our privacy is greater than our willingness to pay for it
To test this notion, Alessandro Acquisti's researchers recently went to a shopping mall, where they offered passersby one of two free gift cards. People were given either a $10 gift card that would allow them to shop anonymously or a $12 gift card that would link their names to their purchases. Next, those who first received the $10 card were asked if they wanted to swap it for the $12 card, effectively selling their privacy for $2. And those who first received the $12 card were asked if they wanted to trade it for the $10 card, effectively buying their privacy for $2. Though the choices were basically equivalent, Acquisti found that shoppers who started with more privacy (the $10 card) valued it much more than those who started with less (the $12 card).
Alessandro Acquisti, Leslie John, and John Loewenstein, Journal of Legal Studies
This helps to explain why so many people willingly sell their privacy by, say, signing up for a grocery store rewards card or a free email account, while so few will pay to protect it by, for instance, using anonymity software, which costs time to research, install, and use.
2. We reflexively accept default privacy settings
From 2005 through May 2011, Acquisti's team tracked the activities of 5,076 Facebook users. Over time, the users gradually decreased the amount of information they shared publicly—until 2009. That's when Facebook changed its default privacy settings to make profiles more public, but also encouraged users to review their settings and adjust them for more privacy if desired. Look what happened:
Fred Stutzman, Ralph Gross, Alessandro Acquisti, Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality
3. We're caught in a Privacy/Control Paradox
In 2011, Carnegie Mellon researchers mimicked what happens on social-media websites by asking students to answer 10 sensitive questions about personal behaviors such as stealing, lying, and taking drugs. The students could decline to answer any of them. One group of students was told in advance that their answers would be automatically published. A second group was asked to check a box if they agreed to give the researchers permission to publish all their answers. And a third group was asked to check a box next to each question to give permission to publish that specific answer—a condition that emulates what happens on blogs and social networks. (See the image at the top of the story.) Though each approach was functionally the same, the third group, the one who was given the most granular control, divulged twice as much sensitive information as the first group. Members of the second group were also significantly more willing to share, even though they knew all of their responses would be public.
These findings strike at the heart of what's known as the Privacy/Control Paradox: The feeling of control that you gain by checking a permission box before you publish, say, that bong hit photo, actually makes you more willing to share it with strangers than you otherwise would have been. In other words, the mere offer of control over your online privacy may induce you to be more reckless with it.
Some of the same psychological quirks that cause people to smoke cigarettes also explain why they don't stop sharing personal details online.
4. We fall for misdirection
Many social networks give users granular control over how their data is shared among users, but very little control over how it's used by the services themselves. This is a classic case of misdirection—the magician's trick of calling attention to one hand while the other stuffs a rabbit inside a hat. A Carnegie Mellon study published in July found that misdirection caused people to disclose slightly more information about themselves than they might otherwise.
5. We're addicts
Some of the same psychological quirks that cause people to smoke cigarettes also explain why they don't stop sharing personal details online. In short, we value immediate gratification, discount future costs, believe our own risks are less significant than the risks of others, and have trouble calculating the cumulative effects of thousands of small decisions. People "who genuinely want to protect their privacy might not do so because of psychological distortions well documented in the behavioral economics literature," Acquisti writes. And "these distortions may affect not only naive individuals but also sophisticated ones."
6. IGNORANCE is bliss
Ignoring privacy threats and sticking your head in the sand might actually be a good idea. Consider the recent revelation that the NSA targets people who use Tor anonymity software—just because. So why bother to become a privacy expert? Caring too much about privacy, as Google's Eric Schmidt has implied, might be taken as a sign that you have something to hide.
This "ah, fuck it" approach is known to behavioral economists as rational ignorance. "Even those that are privacy sensitive among us may rationally decide not to protect their privacy," Acquisti explains. "Not because they don't care, but because it's just too hard. You could be trying to do everything right, and your data could still be compromised."
Maybe that's why you clicked on this story, but probably still won't change your Facebook settings.
Now that Uncle Sam is about to run out of money, federal agencies will need to use their last pennies simply to keep America from falling apart. Food inspectors and pesticide regulators will stay home under the furlough plan, but fear not: Military recruiters will show up to work no matter what. Sure, your kids might die from eating tainted spinach, but they will have died in order to show that America does not give in to terrorists. Or whatever it is you call those ideologues and hostage-takers that the military fights. The point is, just remember that the military will be there for you during the budget apocalypse if you need a job, or want to watch some inspiring videos about jumping out of helicopters and hunting people with spear guns.
UPDATE: Below, readers point out a variety of reasons why furloughing military personnel is not as easy as furloughing civilian workers, which may help explain why Army recruiters are still working while food inspectors are not.
Facebook gets all the bad press, but the bigger threat to your online privacy these days might be your Twitter account. Twitter knows you much better than you may realize. And as it prepares for an IPO, it's taking steps that may allow it to profit from your data in ways that would provoke howls of protest were Mark Zuckerberg to try the same.
Until now, by design, Twitter has mostly dodged privacy concerns. It's a given that anyone can see your tweets (unlike those beer pong photos you stupidly shared on Facebook). Twitter already analyzes your tweets, retweets, location, and the people you follow to figure out which "Promoted Tweets" (a.k.a. ads) to inject into your timeline. That's the Twitter everybody knows and accepts, but it's not the Twitter that big advertisers and investors really care about.
Much of the data Twitter collects about you doesn't actually come from Twitter. Consider the little "tweet" buttons embedded on websites all over the net. Those can also function as tracking devices. Any website with a "tweet" button—from Mother Jones to Playboy—automatically informs Twitter that you've arrived. Last year, Twitter announced that it would start using its knowledge of your internet browsing habits to better recommend people to follow on Twitter. That's a step beyond the approach of Facebook, which claims its "like" buttons are never used for tracking. And it's not a big leap from there to using the same information to serve you targeted ads on all sorts of mobile platforms.
12 13 people were killed in a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, after a gunman opened fire shortly after 8 a.m. on Monday. That number included the gunman, reportedly a 34-year-old man from Texas, who was shot and killed by law enforcement personnel after a lengthy standoff. On Monday afternoon the FBI was looking for two other men it believed were involved in the shooting, but as of Monday night it began assuming that the gunman had acted alone.
Monday's attack represents the largest mass-casualty event in the District since a 1982 plane crash, and the fifth mass shooting in the United States since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
As is often the case with breaking news events, numerous initial reports turned out to be false. The shooter was not 50-year-old Rollie Chance, whose ID badge was found in a car near the shooting scene and matched the description provided by law enforcement. Nor was there any corresponding gunfight at nearby Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. (To jump to the latest updates, click here.)
UPDATE, September 16, 2013, 3:40 p.m. EDT: Officials are identifying the suspected Navy Yard shooter who died after the killing spree as Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old man from Fort Worth, Texas.
UPDATE 2, September 16, 2013, 4:16 p.m. EDT: Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby confirms that Aaron Alexis was a Navy aviation electrician's mate and served from May 2007 to January 2011. And via the NBC station in Dallas-Fort Worth, here is Alexis' Fort Worth 2010 arrest report.
UPDATE 3, September 16, 2013, 4:38 p.m. EDT: The FBI posted this to their website, and is "asking for the public's assistance with any information regarding Alexis." The page includes this image:
According to a Navy document, Alexis is not listed as having served overseas, but is listed as receiving the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
UPDATE 6, September 16, 2013, 5:55 p.m. EDT: According to the SPD Blotter, Aaron Alexis was arrested by Seattle police in 2004 for "shooting out the tires of another man's vehicle in what Alexis later described to detectives as an anger-fueled 'blackout.'"
UPDATE 7, September 16, 2013, 6:25 p.m. EDT: The US Navy has released the biographical information of alleged Navy Yards shooter Aaron Alexis. The former Aviation Electrician's Mate 3rd Class was most recently stationed with Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46 in Fort Worth, Texas, from February 1, 2008, until January 31, 2011.
UPDATE 8, September 16, 2013 6:52 p.m. EDT: According to the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, Alexis was also arrested on September 4, 2010, by Fort Worth police after being accused of recklessly discharging a gun, ABC News reports. "It was determined that Alexis was cleaning a gun in his apartment when it accidentally went off," the DA's office said in a statement. "A bullet entered an apartment upstairs. No one was injured."
UPDATE 9, September 16, 2013 7:06 p.m. EDT: From the Twitter feed of CBS executive producer Charlie Kay:
BREAKING. Spokesman for Hewlett Packard tells @CBSNews Navy Yard shooter was contractor working on the Navy-Marine intranet network.
UPDATE 10, September 16, 2013 7:35 p.m. EDT: According to the police report from the tire-shooting incident, Alexis attributed his actions to being present during "the tragic events of September 11, 2001," and described "how those events had disturbed him." Detectives later spoke to Alexis' father, who told them he'd participated in rescue attempts on 9/11 and later suffered from anger-management issues related to post-traumatic-stress syndrome.
The Seattle Timeshas more detail on the outcome of Alexis' gun-related arrests. Detectives in Seattle referred the tire-shooting case for charges, but the City Attorney's office says it never received the police report and thus never pursued the case. In Fort Worth, Alexis was released from jail the same day that he was arrested for discharging his gun in his apartment building. A spokesman for the Tarrant County DA said he was never charged with a crime.
UPDATE 11, September 16, 2013 8:26 p.m. EDT: An anonymous federal law enforcement official tellsUSA Today that Alexis did not appear to have an escape plan, and it was not clear that he was targeting specific people.
UPDATE 12, September 16, 2013 9:04 p.m. EDT: Does the shooter's race tell us anything about the Navy Yard attack, as some commenters have implied? Not if you look at the data. As MoJo's Lauren Williams writes: "16 percent of the 67 mass shootings that have occurred since 1982 were committed by black shooters, including the alleged Navy Yard shooter, while 66 percent were committed by whites."
UPDATE 13, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 2:01 a.m. EDT: Police have released the names of 7 of the 12 shooting victims.
UPDATE 14, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 10:22 a.m. EDT: According to CNN correspondent Pamela Brown, the "FBI Washington field office...confirmed gunman was NOT armed with AR15. Spokesperson says 1 shotgun and 2 pistols recovered."
UPDATE 15, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 10:43 a.m. EDT: The AP reports that Alexis "had been hearing voices and was being treated for mental problems in the weeks before the shooting rampage, but was not stripped of his security clearance..."
UPDATE 16, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 10:48 a.m. EDT: A Time exclusive:
A soon-to-be-released government audit says the Navy, in an attempt to reduce costs, let down its guard to risks posed by outside contractors at the Washington Navy Yard and other facilities, a federal official with access to the report tells TIME.
The Navy "did not effectively mitigate access-control risks associated with contractor-installation access" at Navy Yard and other Navy installations, the report by the Department of Defense Inspector General's office says. Parts of the audit were read to TIME by a federal official with access to the document.
UPDATE 17, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 11:00 a.m. EDT: WSB-TV Atlanta has the document showing that Aaron Alexis was "issued a citation after a disturbance at a nightclub on Chamblee-Tucker Road and Interstate 285" in Atlanta, Georgia in 2008. He was cited for "disorderly conduct after DeKalb County police said he damaged furnishings inside the club and yelled profanities outside."
UPDATE 18, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 3:46 p.m. EDT: The names of all 12 victims in the Navy Yard shooting have been released.
UPDATE 19, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 3:59 p.m. EDT: The Washington Post reports:
The lawyer for SharpShooters Small Arms Range and gun shop in Lorton [Virginia], J. Michael Slocum, this afternoon released a statement saying that Aaron Alexis purchased a Remington 870 shotgun and about two boxes of shells on Sunday.
Slocum said Sharpshooters ran a background check on Alexis through the federal National Crime Information System database and was approved.
UPDATE 20, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 4:32 p.m. EDT: Read the just-released Department of Defense Inspector General report on Navy access for contractors here. The report found that 52 convicted felons had received "routine, unauthorized installation access, placing military personnel, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk." The reason, the inspector general found, was because the Navy "attempted to reduce access control costs."
UPDATE 21, SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 4:44 p.m. EDT: Fox News reports:
Aaron Alexis was described at different times during his 2007- stint as a full-time Navy reservist as an "eager trainee" with "unlimited potential," who displayed a "get it done" attitude...[A 2008 evaluation] called Alexis, who was 34 when he died, a "talented technician" who meticulously carried out his duties as an aviation electrician's mate, working on aircraft electrical systems. It also praised him for work he did off the Georgia military base where he was stationed, calling him "community minded," and noting that he "dedicated over 10 hours of off-duty time to the Atlanta Food Bank distributing food to needy individuals in the metro Atlanta area."
A box on the review that read "must promote" was checked.
UPDATE 22, SEPTEMBER 18, 2013 10:11 a.m. EDT: "Friends Say Aaron Alexis Was Into Buddhism for the Thai Women," the Daily Beast reports.
First off, let's get one thing straight: You suck as a parent. This is obvious because you're human and thus almost certain to do unforgivable things like leave your baby alone in his or her crib for several hours at a time just so that you can sleep. But let's assume for the sake of argument that you never sleep: How do you really know that your sleeping child is healthy? By staring at her all night long? Please. It's time to admit that you have no idea how to raise a child, and that you should outsource the job to your friends in Silicon Valley. Let's face it, they're probably smarter than you, and their kids will probably have higher IQs than your kids and get into better colleges. So heed their advice, and buy these indispensable baby-rearing gadgets.
Withings Smart Kids Scale
During scheduled check-ups, your pediatrician will typically weigh your baby to make sure that his growth curve falls within the range of "normal." But given that your baby may go days, weeks, or even months between check-ups, how do you know he hasn't suddenly forked off onto an inexorable path towards anorexia or morbid obesity? That's why you need the Withings Smart Kids Scale. It weighs your baby and automatically transmits the measurements to a smartphone app. You can use the app to tweak your feeding strategy, stuffing or starving your infant into total normalcy.
Owlet Vitals Monitor
A sensor woven into your baby's sock tracks her heart rate, blood-oxygen levels, skin temperature, and "sleep quality." It streams this data in real time, along with any "roll over alerts," to your iPhone, where it's logged in perpetuity by a special app. Rest assured knowing that the slightest perturbations in your child's bodily rhythms will be brought to your immediate attention, enabling you to constantly wonder if you ought to rush her to the hospital before it's too late. Only 6 percent of Owlet customers have babies with health issues, according to Owlet founder Jordan Monroe. But nobody has health issues, you know, until they do.
Unfortunately, sensors and smart scales can't monitor everything that matters to your baby's health (and ultimate fantastic success in life). For that, you'll need the Babies' Diary, an app that tracks nursings, diaper changes, baths, doctor visits, baby length and head size, and the duration of stroller walks and play sessions. Concerned that constantly updating these details might detract from, say, your quality time with your child? Don't worry about it! Just sleep less.
True Fit iAlert Convertible Car Seat
When a VC drives his little guy around Menlo Park, how does he really know the kid is buckled in and happy? He could turn around and check on him, but who has time for that while updating their Baby Diaries and negotiating the gridlock on Sand Hill Road? That's why the True Fit iAlert Convertible Car Seat is such a lifesaver. For just $399.99, you get a seat that's fully integrated with your iPhone. You'll never have to take your eyes off the screen again to know that your child has overheated, jumped out the window, or been abandoned by you in the parking lot.
Why Cry Baby Cry Analyzer
Do you know why your baby is crying? Neither do the geniuses who rule Silicon Valley. That's why they own the Why Cry Baby Cry Analyzer. Who needs common sense when you've got algorithms?
Locate 1 GPS
Until robot nannies become viable, you may need to hire a human to help take care of your baby while you're at work. Instead of trusting your nanny's judgment, bug your baby's diaper bag with the Locate 1 GPS. For only $500 (and a $15 to $50 monthly service fee), it can tell you where your baby is going, if he has exceeded a certain speed limit, and whether he has crossed into any "forbidden zones" that you may wish to designate, such as East Palo Alto. The Locate 1 will also come in handy once your baby gets his own drivers license.
You can put your fetus on the waiting list of an exclusive preschool, but don't count on it being accepted without BellyBuds. As any good parent knows, children exposed to music in the womb develop sooner than children who aren't. Sure, affixing two giant suction speakers to your engorged belly every night might not sound like fun, but neither is raising a child that can't even get into MENSA.