recommended reading

It Turns Out People Are Better at Protecting Their Privacy Than Companies Would Like


The struggle between Facebook, Google and their users has led to an unexpected result, contends a new book on privacy: Every time social networks force openness on their users, people become much more guarded in what they share, leading internet giants to push for yet more openness. This is the argument made by three academic researchers, Antonio Casilli, Yasaman Sarabi, and Paola Tubaro, in their new book, “Against the hypothesis of the end of privacy.“

The researchers find that the end of privacy is only one of the possible results of the way online behaviour is evolving, and not the mostly likely one. At the heart of their argument is that users aren’t inert. Far from accepting a steady, linear erosion of their privacy, users of social networks react to changes by over-protecting their privacy. Every time a network tries to make itself more open, its users—in aggregate if not individually—respond by closing themselves off even more. It is a constant tussle. The authors call these “cycles of privacy.”

But people have control over settings in only a limited number of cases, such as with social networks. They are less powerful when it comes to dealing with the snooping apparatuses set up by the world’s governments. That said, the exposure and subsequent public debate over data collection from western spy agencies’ only boosts users’ caution. And they are increasingly demanding tools that allow them to protect themselves better.

Antonio Casilli, one of the authors of the book and a professor at Telecom Paris Tech, explains it thus: When you just join a network, you want to explore so you expose yourself more. Eventually you realize you’ve been giving away too much so you pull the plug and start over-protecting your privacy. This is the moment when privacy becomes cyclical. If millions of users start overprotecting their privacy, the platform owners have to do something about this. So they come up with policies that reopen the privacy settings that were closed. The reaction then is to overprotect again. And so on.

Casilli and his colleagues came to their conclusions by using agent-based modelling, a computer simulation that can mimic interactions between individuals and groups. Casilli says that they didn’t use real-world data because it is both hard to obtain from corporations, and comes with strings attached when it is made available. Samples of data could have helped calibrate the researchers’ model. But Casilli says other methods can also improve reliability, such as checking the results back with past events with known outcomes. 

“If you think of the end of privacy discourse, it is aways something that is presented in a linear way,” says Casilli. “We were surprised by the cyclicality of the results.”

(Image via JuliusKielaitis / )

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.