What Price Privacy? A Penny for Your Thoughts and a Cookie for Your Data?

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In the height of irony, cookies, the real kind, not the ones on the Internet that track consumer’s behavior, were the centerpiece of a recent experiment in New York where 380 people divulged sensitive, personal information in return for a tasty treat.

Chocolate Chili Fleur de Sel or Pink Pistachio Peppercorn cookies were the carrot and the reward in artist Risa Puno’s art event, “Please Enable Cookies,” held at the recent Barter Town event at the Dumbo Arts Festival Brooklyn (next stop: the Brooklyn Museum on Oct. 25).

Each “purchase” is based on sliding scale of how much hackerlicious data each customer shares, filling out a checklist including home address, driver’s license number, phone number and mother’s maiden name. The more you share, the more homebaked cookies you earn.

The use of cookies was no accident. As Puno describes it, “Digitally, cookies are what websites use to get information about users. My installation, Please Enable Cookies, is intended to highlight the way we use information as currency (whether we know it or not) to acquire things that are simply for entertainment or amusement.”[more]

Even though many people got the point of the experiment (and trusted her), she was surprised by how much they trusted her, and how cheerfully they gave up their personal data in exchange for a lowly biscuit. “It is crazy what people were willing to give me,” Puno told ProPublica, adding that many didn’t even eat the cookie.

Judging by the use of the #PleaseEnableCookies hashtag, some people wanted the memento and “just wanted to take pictures of them.” Cookies decorated with the Instagram logo were so popular among photographers that Puno required “purchasers” to give their fingerprints, the last four digits of their Social Security numbers and their driver’s license information. Many still agreed. “They wanted to hold it against the sky with the bridge in the background,” she said of the Instagram-happy audience.

More than half allowed Puno to take their photo and 117 people allowed her to take their fingerprints. If people asked what Puno was going to do with the data, she referred them to her TOS, a legal boilerplate in fine print giving her the right to display, use and share the information.

While it seems most attendees (such as SS+K SVP of digital strategy and innovation, Kevin Skobac) were in on the joke, Puno’s experiment (called “by far the most engaging interactive work” at the Dumbo festival) captures consumers’ ambiguity and inconsistency about Internet privacy issues.

It also recalls the recent “Great Wi-Fi Experiment” in London, where consumers unwittingly signed away their oldest child or a beloved pet just to register for free public Wi-Fi. 

Consumer watchdogs are paying attention, as are brand marketers, of course, to the cyber-swapping of personal information.

Facebook, for example, is under scrutiny for its advertising and research tests with user data, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is keeping a close eye on “Who watches the watchmen?” moves such as US law enforcement distribution of ComputerCOP software.  

Still, when it comes to bytes vs. bites, cookies may trump reason for some.

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