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What The Controversy Over Facebook's Privacy Policy Reveals About The Company And Us


Revelations keep rolling in about how Facebook shares its users' data without their consent. The New York Times reported this week that at least 60 device makers had secret agreements with Facebook. Now Facebook has confirmed that among those 60 are four Chinese companies. The U.S. government considers one of them a national security threat.


These scandals and others do not seem to be hurting Facebook's bottom line much. In fact, last week, its stock hit its highest point of the year. And while it has fallen a bit since, there are no signs of a user mass exodus. So how much do we actually know or care about our privacy on Facebook and other platforms? NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us to discuss that. Hi, Shankar.


SHAPIRO: So lots of people say, I can't believe Facebook is using this with my data. Do people really care? - 'cause we're not seeing them unsubscribe en masse, as far as we can tell.

VEDANTAM: Well, to be clear, Ari, there are two separate strands here. If Facebook has shared information in violation of its legal commitments to users, that's a legal and regulatory matter. There's a separate strand here that's psychological. When it comes to, you know, the garden variety exploitation of our information, Facebook and other companies in Silicon Valley often point out that they have asked for and obtain our permission to share our information.

SHAPIRO: Right, at the end of an 8,000-page privacy policy that appears on our small iPhone screen.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, Ari. In other words, we have given consent, but it actually has not been our informed consent. Studies show that vanishingly few people actually read the privacy policy and terms of service agreements when they sign up for online services. The researchers Jonathan Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch once ran a study where they asked volunteers to sign up for a fictitious new social networking site called NameDrop. It would have taken the volunteers about half an hour to read the privacy policy, Ari.

The median time they spent on it was less than 14 seconds. The vast majority, Obar said, gave their consent to some really crazy things.

JONATHAN OBAR: As a form of payment, you'd be giving up a first-born child, and 98 percent of participants that took the study didn't even notice this particular clause.

SHAPIRO: OK, so those people are giving up their first-born child to this fictitious social network. Is the answer just to make privacy policies more digestible and readable or what?

VEDANTAM: Certainly, I think that's an important first step. But it probably won't be enough, Ari. You know, the real problem is not just that we don't understand Facebook. The real problem is that we don't understand ourselves. If you put a camera up in someone's room and tell them that you're broadcasting what they do, people will be very mindful of the camera for the first hour, maybe even the first day or the first week. But in a very short period of time, people are going to forget that the camera is there. Here's the thing, if you ask the person a couple of weeks later, didn't you know the camera was there?

People will tell you, yes, they did know. But knowing something and having it be front-of-mind are two completely different things.

SHAPIRO: So one question is do people know? And the answer, as you said for the most part, is they don't. And the other question is do people care? And it sounds like not enough to actually do something. So is there a solution?

VEDANTAM: Well, for the very disciplined amongst us, I suppose that education and information can help people act to protect their information. But given that many companies are exploiting not just our privacy but fundamental aspects about how our brains work, our laziness, our inattention, our distractibility, we might need policies that can help protect us not just from companies but protect us from ourselves.

SHAPIRO: A provocative thought from Shankar Vedantam. Thank you so much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And Shankar, of course, also hosts NPR's Hidden Brain podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.