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Privacy and the Illusion of Control

Researchers: Alessandro Acquisti, Laura Brandimarte, George Lowenstein

Research Area: Privacy Protection


Scope: In this research, we introduce and test the hypothesis that control over publication of private information may influence individuals’ privacy concerns and affect their propensity to disclose sensitive information even when the objective risks associated with such disclosures do not change or worsen. We designed and ran three experiments in which we manipulated the participants’ control over information publication, but not their control over the actual access to and usage by others of the published information.

Outcomes: Our findings suggest, paradoxically, that more control over the publication of their private information decreases individuals’ privacy concerns and increases their willingness to publish sensitive information, even when the probability that strangers will access and use that information stays the same or, in fact, increases. On the other hand, less control over the publication of personal information increases individuals’ privacy concerns and decreases their willingness to publish sensitive information. Our findings have behavioral and policy implications: they highlight how technologies that make individuals feel more in control over the publication of personal information may have the unintended consequence of eliciting disclosure of more sensitive information.