Avner Levin: [full interview transcript]

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Avner Levin is an expert in cyber and privacy law. He is currently the chair of the Law & Business Department at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. View his full bio, here.

Click here to watch Avner Levin’s full interview, “What is Your Privacy Worth?”

Ramona: In your work in targeted online advertising, you look at the relationship between consumers and marketers, and how our online data is being used to profile consumers. Do you think that the average user is aware of just how much they’re being tracked, or how much of their data is available to marketers?

Avner: They’re probably not aware. In fact, the research suggests that despite all these efforts of government and privacy advocates to make people aware, they’re just not aware. I don’t know if they’re not aware because they don’t care about it or because they’re too busy. People don’t perceive it in the same way they would in the physical world, someone would just be looking at them with binoculars or something like that. It’s a different sort of experience.

How much is privacy worth?

Ramona: If people find out that they’re being tracked, are they going to change their behaviour?

Avner: Probably not. It’s very frustrating to say that. We’ve done two studies, one more recent, about online media advertising and tracking. Asking people simple things like, “You know, you pay a buck for a track off iTunes. Would you pay a dollar to protect your privacy in a better way?” Nobody wants to pay a dollar to protect their privacy. People aren’t willing to pay a lot for that, even if they say it’s important to them.

When you try to put it in dollars and cents terms, they don’t. And that sort of follows on an earlier study that we did on the perceptions of young adults online, and what they care about. They do a lot of sharing, and we actually find that they care more about what their friends say to them and how their friends influence their identity, how they present themselves to their friends a lot more than they care what is done with the information they post online about themselves.

Ramona: It’s an interesting comparison you bring up when you mention downloading music on iTunes, because when you download a song, you know what you’re getting. Even with me, if you were to tell me I could spend a dollar to get more privacy, I don’t even know what that means. What kind of privacy should they be wanting?

Avner: Well I think the real regulatory challenge, if governments really want to do something about it, is to translate into dollars and cents what your information means for the companies (that are seeking it.) So we hear about Google and Facebook making these big profits, valued at billions of dollars, that’s all built on the personal information that they’re collecting from each and every one of you. There’s a regulatory way to say, “Well, all the data I’ve collected from Ramona is worth $100,000 in this last year.” Even if it was in aggregate form, then it would make sense to me that it’s $100,000, and hey, why don’t I get a cut of that, first of all? Right? You’re making money off of me, at my expense? Well I’d like a piece of that. And then maybe, I’ll say to you, well, in that interaction, if I’m withholding $100,000 of information from you, maybe you should give it to me as a service instead of me paying you a dollar.

Does logging out ensure our privacy?

Ramona: It seems that one of the trends from marketers right now is geolocation, especially as our mobile phones become more ubiquitous, they’re with us everywhere. Is this the sense you get from working with and studying advertisers?

Avner: Very much. There’s a lot of appeal, both to the private sector and to the government, for state surveillance. So it’s kind of scary, also. Part of the scariness is that it’s not immediately obvious. You’re dependent on technology to let you know that you’re being tracked. I’m not a savvy user on my phone, it’s the equivalent of, “Is this camera turned on right now and taping me?” I don’t know! If they are nice enough, they put a little light on it and they tell me. So I have that same little light on my phone telling me, but there are ways to write software that will circumvent that, and ways to design hardware that will circumvent that. So it’s quite possible, and there’s research coming out showing the interest that governments have in having these devices track people even though people are not aware of it. So, that’s a scary thought. That leads to these dystopian visions of what kind of world we’re going to live in. This brave new world of 1984.

Ramona: Well between the parts of our experience that we’re not aware of, the geolocative tracking, and the parts we are aware of that we’re doing ourselves, posting messages to Facebook, is there such a thing as private space anymore?

Avner: It’s sort of difficult to carve it out, I think. I think it’s really going back to that physical space, in that you could shut the door behind you. Even that, with the SmartGrid electricity project, may not be possible, because they will be able to know what kind of electrical devices you’re using at home. So it’s a big, big concern in terms of even a further erosion of what was traditionally called sanctuary.

So the big fear is exactly that, that there isn’t going to be any kind of private space that I can say, “That’s my personal space that nobody can intrude on.” And I think everybody – I mean, that’s the baffling thing about it – everybody wants to carve out their personal space, that solitude that they can be themselves in and not have to present a certain aspect of themselves to some other person. What’s going to happen to us if we really do away with that? I don’t know. We’ll definitely change as a society.


  • People are generally unaware of the extent to which their personal information is being tracked
  • They also do not see value in paying for increased security
  • Increasing prevalence of geolocation services are making private space harder and harder to come by

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