Esther Görnemann recently presented her work at the Lab as part of the Privacy & Us doctoral consortium in London. Her work provides an important perspective on the crucial role that the individual experience of Moments of Truth plays in understanding how human beings think about privacy and how under which circumstances they start actively protecting it. Here is a brief overview of her current research as well as a short introductory video.

During preliminary interview sessions, a number of internet and smartphone users talked to me about the surprising experience when they realized that personal information had been collected, processed an applied without their knowledge.
In these interviews and in countless furious online reports, users expressed concern about their device, often stating they felt taken by surprise, patronized or spied upon.

Some examples:

  • In an interview, a 73-year old man recalled that he was searching for medical treatment of prostate disorders on Google and was immediately confronted with related advertisements on the websites he visited subsequently. Some days later, he also started to receive email spam related to his search. He said “I felt appalled and spied upon” and ever since had begun to consider whether the search he was about to conduct might contain information he would rather keep for himself.
  • A Moment of Truth that made headlines in international news outlets was the story of Danielle from Portland who in early 2018 contacted a local TV station and reported that her Amazon Echo had recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and had sent it to a random person of the couple’s contact list who immediately called the couple back, to tell them what he had received. The couple turned to Amazon’s customer service, but the company was not immediately able to explain the incident. When she called the TV station, Danielle expressed her feelings: “I felt invaded. A total privacy invasion. I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.” While Amazon later explained the incident, saying the Echo mistakenly picked up several words from the conversation and interpreted them as a series of commands to record and send the audio, Danielle still claims the device had not prompted any confirmation or question.  
  • An interview participant recalled how he coincidently revealed that his smartphone photo gallery was automatically synchronized with the cloud service Dropbox. He described his reaction with the words “Dropbox automatically uploaded all my pictures in the cloud. It’s like stealing! […] Since then I’m wary. And for sure I will never use Dropbox again.”

Drawing from philosophical and sociological theories, this research project conceptualizes Moments of Truth as the event in which the arrival of new information results in a new interpretation of reality and a fundamental change of perceived alternatives of behavioural responses.

The notion of control or agency is one of several influential factors that mobilizes people and is key to understand reactions to Moments of Truth.

The goal of my research is to construct a model to predict subjects’ affective and behavioural responses to Moments of Truth. A central question is why some people display an increased motivation to protest and claim their rights, convince others, adapt usage patterns and take protective measures. Currently, I am looking at the central role that the perception of illegitimate inequality and the emotional state of anger play in mobilizing people to actively protect their privacy.