An Empirical Approach to Understanding Privacy Valuation

by Luc Wathieu & Allan Friedman

Overview — What do consumers value and why? Researchers on privacy remain stumped by a "privacy paradox." Consumers declare that they value privacy highly, yet do not take steps to guard it during transactions. At the same time, consumers feel unable to enact their preferences on privacy. Clearly, scholars need a more nuanced understanding of how consumers treat information privacy in complex situations. To test the hypothesis that there is a homo economicus behind privacy concerns, not just primal fear, Wathieu and Friedman conducted an experiment based on a real-world situation about the transmission of personal information in the context of car insurance. Their experiment was based on a previous case study about marketing processes that use membership databases of trusted associations (such as alumni associations) to channel targeted deals to members through a blend of direct mail and telemarketing. Key concepts include:

  • Contrary to some research, the chief privacy concern appears based on data use, not data itself.
  • There is consumer demand for social control that focuses on data use.
  • Sophisticated consumers care about economic context and indirect economic effects.

Author Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to detect the presence of sophisticated economic motives behind individual concerns for privacy. Recent theories of privacy demands in commercial contexts have assumed an economically aware and sophisticated consumer, capable of evaluating the indirect consequences of information transmission. We present evidence, from a large-scale experiment evoking a realistic context, that privacy concerns are indeed sensitive to the indirect consequences of information transmission.

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