Convenience by way of technology comes at a price.
To do what they do well, service providers need to know a lot about us. They track our movement patterns, analyze our browsing history, and even keep important data like banking information on file. Considering how the aggregated data may be accessed by the government, or sold and traded to third parties without our permission or knowledge, it’s understandable why many are uncomfortable.
In response to increasing customer concern, companies like Apple and Microsoft have put more emphasis on protecting customers’ personal data and maintaining user privacy. Mobile app companies like Whatsapp have implemented encryption to protect users’ chat logs. Users themselves are increasingly taking measures to stay hidden from prying eyes and ears.
But, amid this frenzy to hide from Big Brother, there are some who just don’t seem to care.
your business is also your neighbor’s – and your community’s – business
In Singapore, according to TechinAsia, citizens seem to be more outraged at the introduction of an infamous extramarital dating site into their country than finding out just how easily the government can access their private data.
And lax privacy laws in China, until recently, have allowed the easy access to user data by the government, businesses, and even (or especially) scammers. But citizens seem relatively unconcerned despite many instances of data breaches and reports of companies engaging in illegal trading of user data.
With such different reactions towards intrusions of privacy among citizens from opposite sides of the world, one must wonder: Does culture have anything to do with it?
A culture of interdependence vs self-reliance
According to Deng Yanchang, author of A Comparative Study of the Differences Between English and Chinese Languages and Cultures, “privacy” is not a familiar concept among the Chinese, most likely due to the prevalence of close-knit communities where multi-generational homes and tight living spaces led to a higher level of mutual dependence and concern, where your business is also your neighbor’s – and your community’s – business. Yes, even your bodily functions can be their business (stall-less public toilets, anyone?). A long history of monocratic government with communist and socialist influences also led to an implicit acceptance that privacy is almost never absolute.
This may explain why the Chinese tend to be more willing to share personal information online. Personal identity is more closely tied to their community, so allowing others into their private affairs may not seem like such a dire personal threat. According to a BCG Global Consumer Sentiment Survey held in 2013, only half of Chinese participants reported being cautious about sharing personal information, compared to over 80% of North Americans who felt the need to be wary.
surveillance increases behavior that is more compliant with social norms while suppressing thoughts and behavior that may seem different or less socially acceptable
In contrast, with lower population densities and more open spaces, larger and more remotely located single-family homes have long been more common in North America – leading to a greater need for self-reliance. The US, specifically, has experienced a history of relative personal autonomy and independence. A Stanford study found that cueing interdependent thoughts and actions caused a decrease in motivation in European American participants while Asian American participants (who have interdependent schemas in place) were unaffected – suggesting that independence is a deeply rooted concept in the traditional American mentality.
This emphasis on individuality and autonomy may explain why those of us in North America tend to perceive a bigger threat when sharing personal data. It may seem more like a breach of personal space and identity, especially when the information is accessed without our knowledge or permission.
But why does privacy matter?
Research by Neil M. Richards and Costas Panagopoulos suggest that surveillance increases behavior that is more compliant with social norms while suppressing thoughts and behavior that may seem different or less socially acceptable. Julie Cohen, author of What Privacy is For, argues that privacy allows space for reflection and grants us a degree of freedom from external factors when forming our own opinions and values. It facilitates innovation and self-development by insulating the individual from societal influence.
So, while some cultures may not value privacy as highly as others and perhaps there’s no need to pull out that tinfoil hat just yet, the big-picture consequences of disregarding privacy should be something for all those in power to seriously consider.