Privacy Crimes, Annoyances and Self-Defeating Business Practices

By Rotfeld, Herbert Jack | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Privacy Crimes, Annoyances and Self-Defeating Business Practices

Rotfeld, Herbert Jack, The Journal of Consumer Affairs

It appears that everyone says they want privacy, but no one wants to be left alone. Every journal article on the topic presents additional conflicts and contradictions of what people say they want, what the consumer advocates say is needed, and the self-inflicted harm consumers create. At the same time, business practices undertaken by managers recruited from the shallow end of the intellectual gene pool extend from trivial privacy invasions to the facilitation of cyber crimes. Unfortunately, the consumer protection debate has combined the annoying with the criminal, to the detriment of public policy planning that should focus on the latter.


University faculty are required to place detailed statements of course requirements, work expectations and the basis for grading in the course syllabi. Campus administrators treat these documents as akin to legal contracts and this information is commonly placed online, along with other important study materials. Yet, college instructors report that within days of the final exam, many members of the class do not know important information that the syllabus spells out in mind-numbing detail, such as what the final exam would cover, the date of the test, or how to calculate their final grades. After four months, grade-conscious young people exhibit an almost studied ignorance of the guiding documents of the class, just as these computer-familiar tech-savvy students have not accessed recommended cross-links of study questions, sample cases, or other online course details.

Modern college students come to campus with a greater computer familiarity than those of any prior generation, or so we are often told, although a significant number of them often seem unwilling to use computers beyond e-mail to maximize the experience for which they (or their parents) pay many thousands of dollars. Computers can help students prevent grading difficulties, and the majority knows how to do that, but the puzzle is those who don't.

Similarly, numerous privacy-desiring computer-literate people operate in a seemingly ignorant state, unaware of the various marketplace rules that could protect their privacy (Turow 2008). People sometimes read warnings, mostly not. Sometimes they are cautious, other times careless. Some people, sometimes, can be educated to attend to certain details (e.g., see: Rifon, LaRose and Choi 2005; LaRose and Rifon 2007; Nehf 2007), at least in a short-run context as illustrated by research. The broader and not-unexpected finding is that a number of factors come into play unrelated to actual knowledge of the electronic systems involved (e.g., see Nehf 2007; Pitt and Watson 2007; Youn 2008).

The simplistic explanation would be to assert general consumer aliteracy that logically would extend into any realm where people lack an interest to delve into the details of the subject matter (e.g., why people do not wish to understand financial information, Rotfeld 2008). Alternately, regardless of how familiar one might be with programs or machinery, privacy directives become so confusing, and often contradictory, that the simple consumer solution is to ignore the "newest" information by just making visceral decisions based on what emotionally feels correct (as was explained for health information, Rotfeld 2009). But these contradictions between what people say they want and what they do appear more basic, almost weirdly anomalous. Despite consumers' strong claims of privacy desired, their actual behaviors include activities that guarantee a lack of privacy, giving businesses or the world at large a view to their most personal information (e.g., see Norberg et al. 2007; Anonymous 2009).

The privacy literature in some ways sounds reminiscent of what a South Georgia county sheriff once jokingly noted as the types of problem drivers during the rare winter day when snow accumulated on the local roads. Local drivers could act entranced by the strange view of the mysterious white stuff coming from the sky, but the bigger problem is the northerners passing through who are probably yelling to passengers, "Hey, no problem," as if the roads were clear and dry. …

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