The Digital Privacy Paradox: Small Money, Small Costs, Small Talk

The Digital Privacy Paradox: Small Money, Small Costs, Small Talk

By Susan Athey, Christian Catalini, Catherine E. Tucker
February 13,2017Working Paper No. 3498

This paper uses data from the MIT digital currency experiment to shed light on consumer behavior regarding commercial, public and government surveillance. The setting allows us to explore the apparent contradiction that many cryptocurrencies offer people the chance to escape government surveillance, but do so by making transactions themselves public on a distributed ledger (a `blockchain’). We find three main things. First, the effect of small incentives may explain the privacy paradox, where people say they care about privacy but are willing to relinquish private data quite easily. Second, small costs introduced during the selection of digital wallets by the random ordering of featured options, have a tangible effect on the technology ultimately adopted, often in sharp contrast with individual stated preferences about privacy. Third, the introduction of irrelevant, but reassuring information about privacy protection makes consumers less likely to avoid surveillance at large.