Subhashish Bhadra
Principal, Beneficial Technology

A Privacy-Conscious Population: Why We Funded the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and Ashoka's Centre for Social and Behaviour Change

October 7, 2019

Over the past few years, privacy has exploded as a public policy concern — in regulatory chambers, in courts, on our televisions, and on the Internet. Many of us have opined on what is the best way to regulate big tech, or whether General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is living up to its promise. We have experienced hope, despair, excitement, and disappointment while the big players have unfolded their moves in the data chessboards. It seems like the past few years have been the coming-out party for privacy.

Yet, the most important stakeholder has often been missing from this discourse — the individual. What does the individual feel about the privacy of their information? Do they care about how governments and businesses handle their data? Do their actions as citizens and a consumers reflect those preferences? How do they behave in the data marketplace?

The fact that we individuals don’t always act in our best interest further complicates the answer to these already complex questions. We suffer from what psychologists call cognitive biases — systematic and regular deviations from the most sensible actions. Big tech companies have built nearly trillion-dollar empires by exploiting these cognitive biases. The “attention economy” they have spun around us locks us into a never-ending cycle of excitement, data sharing, and instant gratification.

To protect ourselves from the excesses of this digital economy, we need to better understand the individual who sits at the heart of it. Such understanding will help regulators design better policies that rely on a self-sustaining, virtuous cycle of better privacy. This can help avoid the heavy arm of litigation and regulation, especially in emerging markets that often lack strong institutions. It will also enable businesses to design smarter products that create value by placing the individual’s interests at the core. Through such mechanisms, behavioral insights can help us get closer to Good ID by defining what a meaningful data experience looks like for every individual, and what tools societies can deploy to help enable it.

It is with this intention that we are excited to fund the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics based in Kenya and the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) at Ashoka University in India. The centers will conduct a series of controlled experiments on data privacy and compare them for national, regional, and global insights. These pioneers in behavioral economics in emerging markets will test the effectiveness of some product design choices on individual behavior. The centers will conduct these experiments over the next three months in multiple locations across Kenya and India, and present the findings early next year. In particular, the researchers will focus on two questions:

  1. What “nudges” make consumer behavior more “privacy conscious”?

    In survey-after-survey, most individuals say that they care about the privacy of their information, but very few of us actually act on it. While some call this the “privacy paradox”, there might be certain barriers that prevent us from behaving in line with our stated preference. For example, is there really any reasonable way to fully understand the privacy policies we sign up for? Or do we really have avenues to hold data controllers accountable for digital harms? The centers will test what information, design, presentation, and incentive options can be deployed such that individuals understand and act on data privacy.

  2. Is there a business advantage to having better data practices?

    Companies such as Apple are actively linking their brand to data privacy. However, it isn’t yet clear if consumers, especially those in emerging markets, will reward such companies in the marketplace with their business. Do consumers prefer a service provider that promises and delivers better privacy? Are they willing to pay more for a privacy-protecting version of an app? How does greater control over data affect their willingness to share information? The centers will test several privacy features that businesses can potentially incorporate to see which, if any, of them result in a significant positive change in consumer behavior.

The centers’ collective work represents a fundamental shift in how privacy is discussed, by moving the focus back to the individual. They will be deploying some of the most econometrically rigorous tools to help governments and businesses create better products and policies. They will bring behavioral economics and data privacy to uncharted territories in Kenya and India. We believe that we need more human-centered research in order to get us to a safer digital economy where products are meant to empower us, rather than exploit our psychological weaknesses. 

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