'What Can I Really Do?': Explaining Online Apathy and the Privacy Paradox

29 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2015 Last revised: 26 Aug 2015

See all articles by Eszter Hargittai

Eszter Hargittai

Department of Communication and Media Research; Princeton University - Center for Information Technology Policy; Northwestern University - Department of Communication Studies

Alice E. Marwick

Data & Society Research Institute

Date Written: March 30, 2015


While many people claim to be concerned about privacy, their behavior, especially online, often belies these concerns. Researchers have hypothesized that this “privacy paradox” (Barnes 2006) may be due to a lack of understanding of risk; a lack of knowledge about privacy-protective behaviors (Hargittai & Litt 2013); or the social advantages of online self-disclosure (Taddicken 2014). This is especially salient for young people for whom social media may be intrinsic to social life, school, and employment. Using data from ten focus groups totaling 40 participants ages 19-35 administered during summer 2014, we examine young adults’ understanding of Internet privacy issues. Specifically, our research question asks whether the privacy paradox can be attributed to users’ lack of Internet experiences and skills.

While our focus group data do suggest some lack of understanding of risk, misunderstandings around the efficacy of certain privacy-protective behaviors, and lack of knowledge of privacy-related current events, some participants demonstrated use and knowledge of a variety of privacy-protective behaviors. These included configuring social network site settings, use of pseudonyms in certain circumstances, switching between multiple accounts, turning on incognito options in their browser, opting out of certain apps or sites, deleting cookies, using Do-Not-Track browser plugins, and so forth. The simultaneous presence of both lack of knowledge of risk and use of privacy-protective behaviors suggests that the privacy paradox cannot be attributed solely to either a lack of understanding or a lack of interest in privacy.

Instead, participant comments suggest that users have a sense of apathy or cynicism about online privacy, specifically that privacy violations are inevitable and opting out is not an option (“I feel like [pause], then you have the choice between not using the Internet and therefore keeping free of the surveillance, or living with it. So, I do care; but I guess I don’t care enough not to use the Internet. And I’m not sure what the alternative is at the moment.”). We explain this apathy using the construct of networked privacy (Marwick & boyd 2014), which suggests that in highly-networked social settings, the ability of individuals to control the spread of their personal information is compromised by both technological and social violations of privacy. Understanding this, young adults turn to a variety of imperfect, but creative, social strategies to maintain control and agency over their personal data. While participants engaged in a range of privacy-protective behaviors, they recognized that these were insufficient in the face of online data-mining, widespread identity theft, ever-changing privacy-settings, and highly-networked social situations (“I don’t consider myself a tech-savvy person and so just the idea of there being people out there who just with a computer in front of them can hack this database or get my information. To some extent, I think like, ‘Oh I better add a few random numbers in this password,’ or do this or that, but you know besides that I’m also wondering, what can I really do?”).

Our data suggest that fatigue surrounding online privacy and the simultaneous presence of concern over privacy and widespread self-disclosure is not necessarily paradoxical, but a realistic response to the contemporary networked social environment given existing US policy and corresponding business-sector affordances.

The author(s) do not wish to have this considered for presentation in the Poster session.

References (shortened due to word limit):

Barnes. 2006. “A Privacy Paradox” First Monday. Hargittai & Litt. 2013. "New Strategies for Employment?" IEEE Security & Privacy. Marwick & boyd. 2014. “Networked Privacy” New Media & Society. Taddicken. 2014. “The ‘Privacy Paradox’ in the Social Web” JCMC.

Keywords: privacy, privacy paradox, Internet skills, apathy

Suggested Citation

Hargittai, Eszter and Marwick, Alice E., 'What Can I Really Do?': Explaining Online Apathy and the Privacy Paradox (March 30, 2015). TPRC 43: The 43rd Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2587188

Eszter Hargittai (Contact Author)

Department of Communication and Media Research

Andreasstrasse 15
Zurich, ZRH 8050

Princeton University - Center for Information Technology Policy ( email )

C231A E-Quad
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Princeton, NJ 08540
United States

Northwestern University - Department of Communication Studies ( email )

2240 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Alice E. Marwick

Data & Society Research Institute ( email )

36 West 20th Street
11th Floor
New York,, NY 10011
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.datasociety.net

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