Does More Convenience Mean Less Privacy? | St. Louis Public Radio

Does More Convenience Mean Less Privacy?

Originally published on May 6, 2015 12:51 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode The End Of Privacy.

About Alessandro Acquisti's TED Talk

Behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisti studies how everyday decisions contribute to blurring the line between our public and private lives.

About Alessandro Acquisti

Behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisti examines the paradox of privacy in an age when people freely disclose public information. He is a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

His team's studies on facial recognition software showed that it can connect an anonymous human face to an online name, and a Facebook account in about 3 seconds. Other work shows how easy it can be to find a U.S. citizen's Social Security number using public data.

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Hello, Alessandro.


RAZ: So there are a couple things I know about you.

ACQUISTI: I'm curious.

RAZ: This is Alessandro Acquisti. He teaches at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. So you're 40 or 41, roughly, right?


RAZ: You studied at Trinity in Dublin, at the LSC in London, PhD at Berkeley.

ACQUISTI: That is true.

RAZ: Your father's name is Giancarlo. He's a banker, but really his passion was for the piano. And together you wrote an opera about the painter Raphael and his lover.

ACQUISTI: That's correct.

RAZ: Alessandro studies the consequences of sharing private information. So that's just like a little bit of information, but even little things can become hugely sensitive information.

ACQUISTI: Yes, you can start from little pieces, and you can build more and more personal, more and more interesting, and sometimes more and more sensitive information.

RAZ: And how? Alessandro's about to blow your mind from the TED stage.


ACQUISTI: Back in the year 2000, about 100 billion photos were shot worldwide, but only a miniscule proportion of them were actually uploaded online. In 2010, only on Facebook in a single month, 2.5 billion photos were uploaded. Most of them identified. In the same span of time, computers' ability to recognize people in photos improved by three orders of magnitude. What happens when you combine these technologies together - increasing availability of facial data, improving facial recognizing ability by computers, but also cloud computing, which gives anyone in this theater the kind of computational power, which a few years ago, was only the domain of three letter agencies. Well, we conjecture that the result of this combination of technologies will be a radical change in our very notions of privacy and anonymity.

RAZ: And Alessandro found that it's not that hard to use this technology to do some pretty unbelievable things like, identifying a stranger's name just from a snapshot or even predicting their Social Security number from when and where they were born. By the way, all stuff you can find on Google or Facebook. See, what I don't get is, as individuals, we are going to be on the hook for this, right, because we trade our privacy for convenience, right.

Like, I like burritos, right, so sometimes I'll order a burrito from Chipotle, right. And I'll use the app on my phone because it is so convenient. And then I'll just walk in, and I'll just pick up my burrito. And it's already wrapped in that silver foil. It's perfect. And they know every burrito I have ever ordered from them because it comes from my phone through my app. Who knows what they're going to do with that information?

ACQUISTI: When you give away personal information, nowadays, you must often get some kind of immediate discount, some kind of immediate benefits. It could be you having the convenience of ordering the burrito from your app, and the burrito is ready when you want it, exactly how you want it. It could be you uploading a photo in a social network, and your friends click on 'like,' 'like,' 'like,' which gives you these little, but important psychological boosts. Whereas, the potential cost of doing so are, first of all, uncertain. There could be no cost whatsoever or there could be a cost. If there is a cost, it will not appear, most likely, now. It will happen down the line. It could happen five years later when a potential employer sees this particular photo of you, and doesn't like this photo at all. Or from your eating habits, I can infer your likelihood of getting high cholesterol...

RAZ: Yeah.

ACQUISTI: ...Or developing certain diseases.

RAZ: So, like, insurers - insurance could look at your social media history.

ACQUISTI: Yes. I can certainly imagine it.

RAZ: I mean, they are - insurers and potential employers and university administrators, I mean, they all have access to this information. They can build a pretty good profile of almost anybody in the world who has ever been on the Internet and who has ever logged in.

ACQUISTI: Well, the individual administrator, the individual employer or the individual insurance company - not yet have the ability of finding everything about anyone. That's something that maybe search engines and social networks can do. As we reveal more and more about ourselves, as the commerce and the trade in personal information becomes more accepted and prevalent - whether, indeed, there will be shops where I can go and buy all the information about you before, you know, I want to hire you or before, you know, we go on a date.


ACQUISTI: In a movie which came out a few years ago - "Minority Report,"...


NARRATOR: A road diverges in the dessert...

ACQUISTI: ...A famous scene had Tom Cruise walk in a mall.


NARRATOR: The road you're on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled.

ACQUISTI: And holographic personalized advertising would appear around him.



UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: Try one night...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: You could use a Guinness right about now.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #5: Get away, John Anderton.

ACQUISTI: Now the movie is set in 2054, about 40 years from now. And as exciting as that technology looks, it already vastly underestimates the amount of information the organization can get about you. And now they can use it to influence you in a way that you will not even detect. So as an example, imagine that an organization has access to your list of Facebook friends. And through some kind of algorithm, they can detect the two friends that you like the most.

And then they create, in real-time, a facial composite of these two friends. Now studies prior to ours have shown that people don't recognize, any longer, even themselves in facial composites, but they react to those composites in a positive manner. So next time you are looking for a certain product and there is an ad suggesting you to buy it, it will not be just a standard spokesperson. It will be one of your friends. And you will not even know that this is happening.

RAZ: That's creepy. I mean, that scares me.

ACQUISTI: You suddenly don't want to order burritos with your app any longer?

RAZ: I don't want to order burritos with my app anymore. No.

ACQUISTI: Do you know the story about the frog and the boiling water?

RAZ: That you put them in there slowly, and they kind of just hangout and heat it up slowly. But if you throw it in the boiling water, it jumps out. That one?

ACQUISTI: Right. I've always been wondering when it comes to privacy, whether we are like the frog in the water. And the water is slowly getting hotter and hotter, and then it's boiling, and we just stay there. Because the need to disclose and to share is a very important human need, but so is the need for privacy.

RAZ: Are you worried about where this is going?

ACQUISTI: I am concerned, and not in the sense that I expect to live in a "Big Brother," "1984," kind of world anytime soon. In fact, I am more concerned about the brave new world kind of scenario where we have willingly given away our autonomy in exchange for a little bit of convenience, in exchange for an app, which makes buying the burrito we like much faster, much easier.


ACQUISTI: I do believe that one of the defining fights of our times will be the fight for the control over personal information. The fight over whether big data will become a force for freedom rather than a force which will hiddenly manipulate us. Right now, many of us do not even know that the fight is going on, but it is whether you like it or not. And I will tell you that the tools for the fight are here - the awareness of what is going on in your hands just a few clicks away. Thank you.


RAZ: Alessandro Acquisti. He's an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. You can see his full talk with some amazing and alarming photos at


SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: (Singing) Baby, do me a favor, keep our business to yourself. Please, darling, do me a favor, keep our business to yourself. I don't want you to tell nobody, no family and don't mention it to nobody else.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on privacy this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit And if you want to weigh in, check out our collaboration with the Huffington Post on this episode. Go to, and send in your thoughts. You can find many, many more TED talks at And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.