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Podcast: Your Privacy for a Sweet Treat

(Lois Beckett/ProPublica)

When a Brooklyn artist set up shop at a festival offering cookies in exchange for personal data, she expected a torrent of refusals to make her point about privacy in the Internet age. Instead, 380 New Yorkers gave up sensitive personal information — from fingerprints to partial Social Security numbers — to taste her wares.

“Most people – even the people who were skeptical, even the people who made snarky comments – looked at the cookies and were like, ‘Well, OK, I’ll give you something,' " Lois Beckett, who covered the story last week, tells Engelberg and her fellow podcast guests, reporting colleagues Julia Angwin and Justin Elliott.

Like the artist, Risa Puno, ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg was shocked: “How could people not have been aware that, turning over this sort of information -- the next step, generally speaking, is that nude pictures of you appear on the Internet?” he says.

Elliott agrees, asking Beckett, “Did she sort of come to the conclusion that we’re living in a society of ‘sheeple’?” But he acknowledges that the project “dramatizes the decisions that people are making every day and every hour online” and, quite valuably, shows the “remarkable level of deference that people have” to requests for their personal data.

Indeed, although Puno referred anyone with questions to her very long, small-print disclosure form, Beckett says, very few people even read through it before handing over the kind of information many people use as answers to their online security questions.

“If you read all through the terms of service,” Beckett says, “you would see that she had the right to display your information that you gave her, to share the information with other people, to keep it, to store it. She wasn’t making any promises about the security of the data that you gave her.”

Angwin, who’s reported for years on the ways online companies use personal data, agrees with Beckett that people simply aren’t thinking about where their data could end up; they see a nice woman in a hair bow offering them home-baked sweets for what is presumably just an art project.

“And that’s actually the problem of privacy in general,” Angwin says. “We don’t have a good discounting strategy the way we do for buying milk, and you know it’s going to go bad in seven days.”

Google is a perfect example, she continues. “You and I have never written a check to Google, but we use all their services,” allowing our personal information to be repackaged for advertisers. “The truth is, you’re making an exchange of your data, and you have no idea where that data is going to end up.”

Engelberg tries to make sense of it all: Does the younger generation simply not value its privacy?

Beckett says the opposite may be true. “A lot of it is that people already feel like their data has been taken from them, that without their knowledge, it’s suddenly all out here,” she says. “And so why not get something out of it?”

Something like, say, a delicious cookie.

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