Ariana Cepulis ’22 is a 2020-21 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
For my Hackworth Fellowship project, I am researching data privacy ethics. I have focused specifically on data privacy regulation and students’ experiences with data privacy violations. I conducted a survey of the Santa Clara University student body in which I asked students about their experiences with targeted advertising and information tracking online, as well as about the extent to which they value their privacy online.
I found that students are generally uncomfortable with data collection practices and are moderately to very concerned with data privacy. However, students still overwhelmingly care more about convenience than privacy when using the internet. The phenomenon in which people express concern about their online privacy and yet still take actions that expose them to privacy violations is known as the privacy paradox. We are so reliant upon the internet for communication, socialization, work, and school, that we have no choice but to accept the privacy protections (or lack thereof) that websites provide. Thus, while we may express concern about our online privacy, we continue to use sites that are likely collecting our personal information because we have no viable alternative.
The results of the survey helped me recognize the importance of comprehensive federal data privacy legislation. Consumers will continue to use platforms that don’t adequately protect their privacy because there are no other options available. If firms are not subject to regulation, they will continue to exploit consumer data. The collection and sale of personal information is a massive source of advertising revenue for many technology companies. The United States currently lacks any sort of comprehensive federal privacy regulation. Instead, there is a patchwork of different state laws that provide varying protections for consumers.
A majority of states have no laws in place to protect consumer privacy online. I synthesized my findings from the student survey and my research on data privacy regulation in a research paper. I compared and contrasted different state laws with data protection laws in the European Union and concluded the paper by proposing key features that should be included in a federal data protection law. Until federal data protection legislation is passed, consumers will be vulnerable to privacy violations from companies whose data collection practices are often opaque. The burden cannot be placed solely on consumers to protect their information online; companies must be held accountable for their behavior and must be held to a higher standard of privacy regulation.
Throughout my fellowship project, I researched the complexities of privacy regulation from the consumer’s perspective as well as the firm’s perspective. Small firms that are subject to complex regulations may not be able to adapt and larger firms with the resources to adapt may eat up an even larger share of the market. On the consumer side, there is a difficult balance between informing consumers of firms’ data collection practices while not overwhelming them with too much information. Consumers ought to be informed about how their personal data is being used, but consumers are prone to “click fatigue” when they are expected to read the privacy agreements on each different site they visit and consent to cookies before entering any new website. The Hackworth Fellowship afforded me the opportunity to explore the complexities of regulating data privacy in a way that benefits consumers and limits harm to firms.
About Ariana Cepulis
"I’m an Economics major and Spanish minor, born in Virginia and raised in Boulder, CO. SCU’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley has sparked my interest in the technology industry and technology ethics. I’m particularly interested in the ethics of data privacy and the steps that technology companies are, or should be taking to protect our personal data. In my future career, I hope to work with technology companies to develop ethical frameworks and adopt ethical decision-making practices, so that society can benefit from technological innovation without sacrificing ethics. I love to hike, bike, camp, and ski. On campus, I’m a leader for the “Into the Wild” outdoors club, through which I’ve explored many beautiful areas in California."