How I utilized “expectation failure” to refute privacy myths

April 11, 2013 at 4:50 am Leave a comment

Last semester I taught a course on privacy technologies. Since it was a seminar, the class was a small, self-selected group of very motivated students. Based on the feedback, it seems to have been a success; it was certainly quite personally gratifying for me. This is the first in a series of posts on what I learnt from teaching this course. In this post I will discuss some major misconceptions about privacy, how to refute them, and why it is important to do this right at the beginning of the course.

Privacy’s primary pitfalls

Instructors are often confronted with breaking down faulty mental models that students bring into class before actual learning can happen. This is especially true of the topic at hand. Luckily, misconceptions about privacy are so pervasive in the media and among the general public that it wasn’t too hard to identify the most common ones before the start of the course. And it didn’t take much class discussion to confirm that my students weren’t somehow exempt from these beliefs.

One cluster of myths is about the supposed lack of importance of privacy. 1. “There is no privacy in the digital age.” This is the most common and perhaps the most grotesquely fallacious of the misconceptions; more on this below. 2. “No one cares about privacy any more” (variant: young people don’t care about privacy.) 3. “If you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to hide.”

A second cluster of fallacious beliefs is very common among computer scientists and comes from the tendency to reduce everything to a black-and-white technical problem. In this view, privacy maps directly to access control and cryptography is the main technical mechanism for achieving privacy. It’s a view in which the world is full of adversaries and there is no room for obscurity or nontechnical ways of improving privacy.

The first step in learning is to unlearn

Why is it important to spend time confronting faulty mental models? Why not simply teach the “right” ones? In my case, there was a particularly acute reason — to the extent that students believe that privacy is dead and that learning about privacy technologies is unimportant, they are not going to be invested in the class, which would be really bad. But even in the case of misconceptions that don’t lead to students doubting the fundamental premise of the class, there is a surprising reason why unlearning is important.

A famous experiment in the ’80s (I really really recommend reading the linked text) demonstrated what we now know about the ineffectiveness of the “information transmission” model of teaching. The researchers interviewed students after any of four introductory physics courses, and determined that they hadn’t actually learned what had been taught, such as Newton’s laws of motion; instead they just learned to pass the tests. When the researchers sat down with students to find out why, here’s what they found: 

What they heard astonished them: many of the students still refused to give up their mistaken ideas about motion. Instead, they argued that the experiment they had just witnessed did not exactly apply to the law of motion in question; it was a special case, or it didn’t quite fit the mistaken theory or law that they held as true.

A special case! Ha. What’s going on here? Well, learning new facts is easy. On the other hand, updating mental models is so cognitively expensive that we go to absurd lengths to avoid doing so. The societal-scale analog of this extreme reluctance is well-illustrated by the history of science — we patched the Ptolemaic model of the Universe, with the Earth at the center, for over a millennium before we were forced to accept that the Copernican system fit observations better.

The instructor’s arsenal 

The good news is that the instructor can utilize many effective strategies that fall under the umbrella of active learning. Ken Bain’s excellent book (which the preceding text describing the experiment is from) lays out a pattern in which the instructor creates an expectation failure, a situation in which existing mental models of reality will lead to faulty expectations. One of the prerequisites for this to work, according to the book, is to get students to care.

Bain argues that expectation failure, done right, can be so powerful that students might need emotional support to cope. Fortunately, this wasn’t necessary in my class, but I have no doubt of it based on my personal experiences. For instance, back when I was in high school, learning how the Internet actually worked and realizing that my intuitions about the network had to be discarded entirely was such a disturbing experience that I remember my feelings to this day. 

Let’s look at an example of expectation failure in my privacy class. To refute the “privacy is dying” myth, I found it useful to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey — specifically, why it succeeded even though publishers initially passed on it. One answer seems to be that since it was first self-published as an e-book, it allowed readers to be discreet and avoid the stigma associated with the genre. (But following its runaway success in that form, the stigma disappeared, and it was released in paper form and flew off the shelves.)

The relative privacy of e-books from prying strangers is one of the many ways in which digital technology affords more privacy for specific activities. Confronting students with an observed phenomenon whose explanation involves a fact that seems starkly contrary to the popular narrative creates an expectation failure. Telling personal stories about how technology has either improved or eroded privacy, and eliciting such stories from students, gets them to care. Once this has been accomplished, it’s productive to get into a nuanced discussion of how to reconcile the two views with each other, different meanings of privacy (e.g., tracking of reading habits), how the Internet has affected each, and how society is adjusting to the changing technological landscape.

I’m quite new to teaching — this is only my second semester at Princeton — but it’s been exciting to internalize the fact that learning is something that can be studied scientifically and teaching is an activity that can vary dramatically in effectiveness. I’m looking forward to getting better at it and experimenting with different methods. In the next post I will share some thoughts on the content of my course and what I tried to get students to take home from it.

Thanks to Josh Hug for reviewing a draft.

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I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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