Sturdley's Magical Mystical Blog

Musings on life, liberty, and the pursuit of derpiness.

Perceptions of Risk

I’m sure you’ve seen this: one of your friends shares a Facebook post about dastardly privacy setting changes, some plot by do-no-gooders to sneak into your garden shed and steal your kittens, or general evil deeds afoot in the internet.  These never cease to amuse and confuse me.  Let’s set aside the fact that some of these truly are hoaxes invented by internet trolls for the sole purpose of causing distress (this is why we have Snopes).  Even the true stories seem to spread like wildfire based on a skewed sense of risk, often under the guise of “spreading the word… you know, just in case.”

Take an example I saw recently.  The post suggested you turn off your location settings in your smartphone camera because bad people will extract the geo-data from the pictures you post on Facebook, find your house, and do nefarious things to your family.  On its face, this is a terrifying scenario with an extraordinarily simple solution.  Why would anyone not do this immediately?  Why would you not tell all your friends to do the same thing?  What kind of horrible monster leaves this setting active on their phone?!?  But things are not as they appear.  Let’s analyze the failure in logic:

  • You are posting images of yourself and/or family in the internet.
  • Your name is presumably on the account on which you are posting, also on the internet.
  • Your address might be posted in your about page, in a post you’ve made in the past, or even captured in one of the images you’ve posted of yourself in front of your house.
  • Your address is very likely available under your name on any number of White Pages directories or other lookup services.

If a bad person wanted to find you, they already have ample opportunity to do so without extracting image file metadata or even looking at your online pictures.  We haven’t even considered the likelihood that these bad people want to find you or whether they are the ones you should be worried about (publicly available data on crime suggests they are not at the top of the list).  See what I mean about skewed sense of risk?

We all judge risk every day, and even change how we respond to it based on past experience.  If you burn your finger on that hot pan once, you form a model of the world that informs you to not touch a pan without first determining its temperature.  Checking if a pan is hot is quick and easy with relatively low chance of permanent harm.  There are many decisions we make every day that involve far more complicated calculation of risk and much higher stakes.  I think this is where most of us end up deviating from the real risks based on our perceived model of the world and our biases.  That’s where we have the best opportunity to improve in our decision-making and responses, but it also means taking a moment to step back from the scary story and thinking about how you got there.

Going back to the example I introduced above, assume for the moment that one of these bad people wants to get you.  How do you prevent this?  You either keep them from finding you or you stop them once they do.  Do they know your name?  How?  Can they find out where you live?  How?  What could you reasonably do to prevent them learning your name or address?  If you fail this and they do find this information, what can you do to protect yourself?  How do these people typically behave when they’re about to come get you?  Do they announce themselves or are they sneaky?  How could they be sneaky?  How can you tell these bad people from the good?  If you ask these kinds of questions when judging the risk, you are far more likely to recognize your biases and avoid reaching erroneous or premature conclusions.

With this new perspective, I think you might agree that not only is smartphone image geo-data is not among the top concerns.  In fact, it is likely so low in risk as to be negligible compared to simply posting online at all.  Even that could be considered less risky than a listing in the white pages.  I suppose it is a comforting, if not misleading thought that a simple smartphone setting could stop bad people cold in their tracks, though.

So I suggest the next time you encounter one of these warning posts that triggers an immediate emotional response in your mind, stop and think for a moment.  Are you responding to a real risk or are you feeding into the sense of panic the author is trying to induce?  You might be surprised.

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