When Sharing Personal Data, Context is King

This post was originally published in design mind on January 20, 2011.

Facebook made privacy headlines yet again last week when they made users’ contact information (phone number and address) available to developers. What can our study tell us about users’ reactions to such a change in policy?

As Tim wrote a few days ago, it seems that people actually aren’t willing to pay much to keep their contact information private. Does that mean that Facebook’s decision to share this data with developers was acceptable? Does the relatively low value of the revealed contact information mean that users expect their information to be widely shared?  In a word: no.

First of all, Tim’s analysis concerns only people’s relative willingness to give up their information in the first place. It says nothing of users’ expectations for stewardship of their information, which is the real issue in Facebook’s latest move.

Furthermore, Tim raises a compelling hypothesis around the importance of context. Essentially, if personal data is relevant to the service being offered, users are more likely to share the data. For instance, we don’t mind our doctor having a record of our prescriptions, but we wouldn’t share the same data with our employer.) This hypothesis would explain why users are so unwilling to share their social security number or credit card number in exchange for something like free email—the data has no apparent connection to the service being offered, which indicates a potential for misuse.

What’s troubling about Facebook’s decision to share contact information is that while the data was collected in a social context, it would have been exported to an entirely separate commercial context. Indeed, the ease with which data can transfer from one context to another is one of the reasons there is so much popular anxiety around this issue.

When users share their data with a service provider, they relinquish control. Furthermore, when it comes to stewardship of their information, they rely not on the policies laid out in arcane terms and conditions, but on a much simpler idea: trust.

In our survey, we asked people about what brands they trust with their personal data. We’ll reveal the results in a future post, but until then let us know what you think. What brands do you trust with your data? How do you make decisions about what to share with whom? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or show us who you trust by uploading photos over at our frogMob.

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