Age and Privacy

Media reports teem with stories of young people posting salacious photos online, writing about alcohol-fueled misdeeds on social networking sites, and publicizing other ill-considered escapades that may haunt them in the future. These anecdotes are interpreted as representing a generation-wide shift in attitude toward information privacy. Many commentators therefore claim that young people “are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are.” This report is among the first quantitative studies evaluating young adults’ attitudes. It demonstrates that the picture is more nuanced than portrayed in the popular media.

A UC-Berkeley Law/U. Penn Annenberg team recently commissioned a telephonic (wireline and wireless) survey of internet using Americans (N=1000) on privacy. The findings are presented in How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?

The major findings include–

  • Large percentages of young adults (aged 18-24) are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions. In several cases, there are no statistically significant differences between young adults and older age categories on these topics.
  • Where there were differences, over half of the young adult-respondents did answer in the direction of older adults. There clearly is social significance in that large numbers of young adults agree with older Americans on issues of information privacy.

Why does it seem then that young adults behave with such license, particularly on social network sites?

A gap in privacy knowledge provides one explanation. 42 percent of young Americans answered all of our five online privacy questions incorrectly. 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly. The problem is even more pronounced when presented with offline privacy issues–post hoc analysis showed that young Americans were more likely to answer no questions correctly than any other age group.

We conclude then that that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.

Cross-posted at Technology | Academics | Policy

Conservatives and the Census

Naftali Bendavid reports today in the Journal on a problem facing conservatives: how should they assure their supporters, many of whom are suspicious of government activity, to participate in the US Census? After all, the Census sounds suspiciously like something Tiberius would like. But Moses was a fan too. And now Karl Rove is pitching the Census.

Ron Paul argues:

“The census should be nothing more than a headcount,” Mr. Paul wrote this month in his weekly column. “It was never intended to serve as a vehicle for gathering personal information on citizens.”

It should be noted that Paul is factually incorrect. Jefferson and Madison were strong proponents of expanding the enumeration, from the very first Census. But it is also true that privacy concerns have always plagued the Census.

Congress has an opportunity to address some of these privacy concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, advances in “reidentification” have made it possible to determine the identities of Census participants. The Census Bureau has known about this problem for a long time, and has engaged in serious, well-respected research into solving it. However, the law has not kept up with the problem. Under 13 USC § 9(a)(2), the Department of Commerce is prohibited from “mak[ing] any publication whereby the [Census] data furnished by any particular establishment or individual under this title can be identified.” Thus, the Census Bureau must protect the identities of those who participate in the enumeration. But this law does not restrain private action. As a result, companies and others are free to try to strip citizens of their anonymity when participating in the Census, and even sell back the data to other government entities.

Conservatives could take a step towards allaying these concerns by extending Title 13 to prohibit private-sector efforts to reidentify participants of the Census. Germany has already done this. Unless this step is taken, it’s just a matter of time before this government-mandated enumeration results in an enormous transfer of personal information to those unethical enough to reidentify and attempt to profit from it.

Cross posted at The Berkeley Blog

Is This Punk?

What is this business about the Broadway opening of Green Day’s American Idiot? Both the Journal and the Times have reported on it, and in the process, defamed an entire genre by describing Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as a “punk” rocker.

This musical, which opened at the Berkeley Rep a few months ago (to an audience that will ovate any performance), was pretty disappointing. The musical is essentially a “buddy movie,” but typically in buddy movies, some great thing is accomplished. It might be some caper or venal activity, but at least one can care about its execution. Not so with this thing. These buddies hardly do anything. They wallow, and while the women in the play are more interesting, the playwright stripped them of identity such that they were mere appendages to the men (one of the women was named “Whatsername;” I don’t think this was ironic). In a momentary respite from appendagehood, one of the women ends her relationship with her manchild, perhaps because he was attached to a couch. I’m really not sure why the relationship ended, because I was adjusting my earplugs in response to the howls of joy emitted from the Berkeley Rep’s audience; they seemed impressed by this action in light of the general atmosphere of torpidity and self-pity.

I think Patrick Healy of the Times is trying to tell us something by closing his article with this description:

In a “ballet of rubber tubing,” as members of Green Day have called the choreography, the lovers tie themselves together with the kind of band that heroin addicts use to tie off body parts when finding a vein to inject. The lyrics declare, “My beating heart belongs to you.”

“To take this scene of Johnny and Whatsername doing heroin and turn it into some of the most beautiful and evocative shapes I’ve ever seen — it was an incredible moment,” said Mr. Dirnt, the Green Day bassist. “Real theater.”

Cross posted at teh Berkeley Blog.