DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And you probably know this. Every time you sign up for something online - maybe you're updating your operating system on your mobile device, maybe you're buying a new app, maybe you're just getting a new loyalty card from the drugstore - you're often presented with this lengthy legal statement, and you're asked if you agree with the terms of service. Well, there is new social science research that looks into what all of us do when we encounter these documents. And to explain, we're joined by - who else? - NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: I mean to tell you something - I never even read those policies. I click I agree, and I'm scared that you're going to tell me that I'm making a mistake.
VEDANTAM: You are making a mistake, but you're not the exception of it.
VEDANTAM: You are the rule.
GREENE: Good. I feel better.
VEDANTAM: You know, as soon as one of those lengthy legal policy things come up, I immediately start hunting for the button that says agree...
VEDANTAM: To say I agree with what - to whatever terms...
GREENE: Sometimes they make you actually scroll as if you're reading it before you can agree...
GREENE: ...But that's - that helps.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I was speaking with Jonathan Obar. He studies information policy at York University. He's conducted some new work showing how bad the problem is, but this piggybacks on some earlier work. Here's Obar.
JONATHAN OBAR: It would take the average user 40 minutes a day to read all of - and that's every day - to read all of the privacy and terms of service policies that we encounter related to the different services that we're using all the time.
GREENE: Oh, yeah, the spare 40 minutes we have in all of our days to do that. I mean, that's crazy.
VEDANTAM: It is crazy. But we all participate in this collective act of fiction, David. Companies get to say that they are telling us what they're going to do with our data, and we say we've understood the terms and are providing informed consent. Obar and his colleague Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch at the University of Connecticut decided they wanted to put empirical heft to something we all know is happening.
So they conducted a study where they asked volunteers to sign up for a new social networking site called Name Drop as in drop that name, get that job.
GREENE: They just made this thing up.
GREENE: They came up with it.
VEDANTAM: Now, the social networking site was fictitious, but the research has created a legal agreement laying out the terms of service. It would have taken volunteers a lot of time to read. Buried in the agreement was the disclosure that anything users shared would be passed along to the NSA.
GREENE: (Laughter) The National Security Agency.
GREENE: The top secret government agency that many people are already afraid are gathering too much information about us. That's great.
VEDANTAM: Precisely. Obar told me that exactly one volunteer - one out of more than 500 raised a concern...
GREENE: Oh, my God.
VEDANTAM: ...About information being passed along to the NSA. He also included another really unusual clause in the agreement.
OBAR: What we did is we went to the extreme, and we included this - a firstborn clause suggesting that if you agreed to these policies that as a form of payment, you'd be giving up a first-born child. And 98 percent of the participants that took the study didn't even notice this particular clause.
VEDANTAM: So I think there's a couple of interesting things happening here psychologically, David. People don't anticipate all the ways that information collected about them can reveal things about them and how it can be used. So people are signing these agreements without reading them because they say I have nothing to hide, but, as Obar says, maybe your grocery store is selling information about your food purchases to your insurance company, which then uses it to make judgments about your health risk.
And, of course, from the point of view of companies and policy-makers, the idea that these documents are eliciting informed consent is really a joke. They may provide legal cover, but how many people are really providing informed consent when they're willing to give up their first-born child just to use a social networking site?
GREENE: Thanks, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: That is NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. He is also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.