Privacy Crimes


Privacy Crimes, Annoyances and Self-Defeating Business Practices, an Essay by Herbert Jack Rotfeld

 ARC: Connections: ELMAR: Posting

Privacy Crimes, Annoyances and Self-Defeating Business Practices

adapted from the editorial postlude in Journal of Consumer Affairs, Fall 2009

[This link goes to the PDF]

by Herbert Jack Rotfeld

University faculty are required to place detailed statements of course requirements, work expectations and the basis for grading in the online course syllabi as the higher administration treats these documents as akin to legal contracts. 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 and almost studied ignorance of the guiding documents of the class, just as these computer-familiar tech-savy students have not accessed recommended cross links of study questions, sample cases, or other online course details.

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

Similarly, numerous privacy desiring computer literate people operate in a seemingly ignorant state, unaware of the various marketplace rules that could protect that 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 illustrated by research. The broader and not-unexpected finding is a number of factors come into play unrelated to actual knowledge of the electronic systems involved (e.g., see: Youn 2008; Nehf 2007; Pitt and Watson 2007).

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. But these contradictions of between what people say they want and what they do appear more basic, almost weirdly anomalous. Despite consumers’ strong claims of privacy desire, the actual behaviors include activities that guarantee a lack of privacy, giving businesses or the world at large a view to their most private of information (e.g., see: Norberg. Horne and Horne 2007; Anonymous 2009).

The privacy literature in some ways sounds reminiscent to what a South Georgia county sheriff once jokingly noted as the types of problem drivers during the rare winter day that 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 would be from the northerners passing through, maybe yelling to passengers "Hey, no problem," as if the roads were clear and dry as they would be up North where they have snow plows. Similarly, the privacy aware consumers boldly go forward thinking they can handle anything, while others behave with apparent ignorant as they are caught in data sweeps that send all sorts of unsolicited advertising messages or result in identity theft. The dichotomy might be a tad overly simplistic, but those caught in various privacy traps are not just small children and people who never turned on a desktop computer before age 55.

Both public policy decision makers and the self-regulation concerns of honest businesses need research on how to maximize consumer awareness of potential problems. Yet too many issues have become intertwined to the point where lines are not so clear as to exactly what is meant by privacy itself, and where should consumer protection or public policy focus. Details are important, because if you cannot say what you mean you can never mean what you say. It sometimes merely requires you to be specific.

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.

Clearly, privacy protection reduces cybercrimes such as phishing, identity theft of criminal invasions of business’ credit card data. As people seek new jobs in difficult economic times, online job listings provide another realm of consumer abuse. The increasingly popular social networks generate another avenue of potential problem, as people act the exact opposite of self-professed claims of privacy desires, so not unexpectedly an estimated 13 percent of users experiencing some degree of privacy abuse. Cybercrime has become a major national security concern, so consumer education for self-protection here becomes especially crucial, though even experts can’t easily recognize some new forms of phishing email (Anonymous 2009).

As with many crimes, consumer awareness of dangers is a key, at least for discouraging the criminals if not fully preventing the crimes. Yet even here, at some point, people become casual or careless. Again, the human behavior parallels extend beyond electronic privacy. Despite the simple rules for travelers to discourage pickpockets, men walk through crowded airports with a fat wallet visible in a back pants pocket known to criminals as "the sucker pocket" for the ease at which it can be removed. Women walk through downtown city streets with thin-strapped purses tangling behind their backs as if they are leaving bait for a quick purse grab.

Of course, these people are not stupid, ignorant or lazy. To some extent, privacy awareness is an ongoing effort, and it could prove draining as a constant awareness on even little details. The simple subconscious reaction is to get comfortable or casual as some fears are perceived as overblown. And as shown with some user reactions to Facebook privacy changes, some people don’t care,

Consumer self-protection taken to the extreme would be akin to the medical office receptionist on the television program "Northern Exposure" who wouldn’t date anyone whose medical records indicated the slightest potential for a future health problem. Visiting the grandparents many years ago in Florida, my younger sister, her husband and I all decided to drive to a nearby beach just after sunrise. Even North Miami Beach can have cool mornings in late December, so we didn’t stay long on the deserted sand. Telling our grandparents where we went, they were aghast. "You shouldn’t go there. That’s where they have all the illegal drug dealing." We said that it wasn’t going on when we were there, since we had the beach to ourselves except for the brief period when we saw one man loping along the shoreline with his small dog. "The drug deals were there. You just didn’t see them." Apparently that specific area was named in a past police report published in the local paper, and thus to the grandparents it became a place to avoid. And maybe the place should be avoided at certain times, but that morning the scene was serene.

Consumers’ realistic fears can cross into paranoid. Fatalism or denigration of possible dangers prove not so irrational as people factor probability of harms versus desired freedoms. Full protection would require never opening email from names not immediately recognized, never giving a credit card to a waiter, never shopping online, or maybe, never using a credit card or email at all. Still, one can live within realistic cautions. There are dangers that can be controlled or cautions to be noted and practices to be aware of avoiding.

It becomes easier to belittle the dangers of cybercrime when the discussion readily combines it with the innocent or innocuous business uses of privacy data. The error would be to confuse the dangers of potential criminal abuses with privacy annoyances of spam or just being on too many mailing lists.

For example, many retail store chains have loyalty programs. Most consumers see these membership cards as mechanism for discounted prices, something that has been positively supported by columnists at consumer protection web sites or in Consumer Reports. It is intuitively logical that these same consumers probably recognize that these loyalty programs enable the tracking of purchases tied to a personal addresses or phone numbers that could be sold to third parties, but they don’t care. In theory, the marketing messages are better targeted to the consumer interests, while a company that abuses the card program with invasive telemarketing or sales of customer lists to offensive product distributors could discourage both existing and potentially new customers. But at worst, it can be an annoying nuisance.

The strong popularity of privacy as a research topic stems more from consumer fears of privacy invasions than the criminal problems that need to be controlled. Sometimes, studies of privacy literacy start from the researchers’ presumptions of what people should know instead of the pragmatic realities of what consumers want to know or potential intrusions they might wish to prevent. Privacy literacy therefore goes beyond knowing how to keep information personal when it is desired to do so, but also knowing that many other times the dangers of crime are minimal and the risk level acceptable (e.g., see: Norberg, Horne and Horne 2007).

The apparent contradictions between what consumers say and what they do might not all be contradictory. The understanding of technology includes knowledge that not all privacy intrusions are invasive, thus not all are invasions.


Anonymous. 2009. Boom Time for Cybercrime. Consumer Reports, 74 (June): 18-21.

LaRose, Robert and Nora J. Rifon. 2007. Promoting I-Safety: Effects of Privacy Warnings and Privacy Seals on Risk Assessment and Online Privacy Behavior. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 41 (Spring): 127-149.

Nehf, James P. 2007. Shopping for Privacy on the Internet. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 41 (Winter): 351-365.

Norberg, Patricia A., Daniel R. Horne, and David A. Horne. 2007. The Privacy Paradox: Personal Information Disclosure Intentions versus Behaviors. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 41 (Summer): 100-126.

Pitt, Leland F. and Richard T. Watson. 2007. A Reply [to Nehf]: An Ecosystem Perspective on Privacy. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 41 (Winter): 365-375.

Rifon, Nora, Robert LaRose, and Sejung Marina Choi. 2005. Your Privacy Is Sealed: Effects of Web Privacy Seals on Trust and Personal Disclosures. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 39 (Winter): 339-362.

Rotfeld, Herbert Jack. 2008. Financial Aliteracy. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 42 (Summer): 306-309.

Turow, Joseph, Michael Hennessy, and Amy Bleakley. 2008. Consumers’ Understanding of Privacy Rules in the Marketplace. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 42 (Fall): 411-424.

Youn, Seounmi. 2008. Parental Influence and Teens’ Attitudes Toward Online Privacy Protection. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 42 (Fall): 362-388.