Privacy Pleads

Submitted by ub on Thu, 01/14/2016 - 16:09

According to Pew Research, Privacy and Information Sharing is fine for many Americans, who say they might provide personal information, depending on the risk and a deal being offered.

Most Americans see privacy issues in commercial settings as contingent and context-dependent. A new Pew Research Center study based on a survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups of 80 people finds that there are a variety of circumstances under which many Americans would share personal information or permit surveillance in return for getting something of perceived value. For instance, a majority of Americans think it would be acceptable (by a 54% to 24% margin) for employers to install monitoring cameras following a series of workplace thefts. Nearly half (47%) say the basic bargain offered by retail loyalty cards – namely, that stores track their purchases in exchange for occasional discounts – is acceptable to them, even as a third (32%) call it unacceptable.

Still, while many Americans are willing to share personal information in exchange for tangible benefits, they are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that information once companies have collected it. For example, when presented with a scenario in which they might save money on their energy bill by installing a “smart thermostat” that would monitor their movements around the home, most adults consider this an unacceptable tradeoff (by a 55% to 27% margin). As one survey respondent explained: “There will be no ‘SMART’ anythings in this household. I have enough personal data being stolen by the government and sold [by companies] to spammers now.”

In online focus groups and in open-ended responses to a nationally representative online survey, many people expressed concerns about the safety and security of their personal data in light of numerous high-profile data breaches. They also regularly expressed anger about the barrage of unsolicited emails, phone calls, customized ads or other contacts that inevitably arises when they elect to share some information about themselves. In response to a question about having their online behavior tracked in exchange for getting access to a free online service , one survey respondent wrote: “I want control over what ads are being ‘pushed back’ to me: I have no interest in ‘puppy portraits’ but I may be interested in cameras, equipment, etc. In an effort to ‘target’ my preferences, my inbox gets full of [expletive] that is not relevant to me.”

These findings suggest that the phrase that best captures Americans’ views on the choice between privacy vs. disclosure of personal information is, “It depends.” People’s views on the key tradeoff of the modern, digital economy – namely, that consumers offer information about themselves in exchange for something of value – are shaped by both the conditions of the deal and the circumstances of their lives. In extended comments online and through focus groups, people indicated that their interest and overall comfort level depends on the company or organization with which they are bargaining and how trustworthy or safe they perceive the firm to be. It depends on what happens to their data after they are collected, especially if the data are made available to third parties. And it also depends on how long the data are retained.

The scenarios obviously did not comprehensively cover the vast range of possibilities where people would consider sharing personal information in return for a benefit. But it is interesting to note that 17% of adults say they wouldn’t take any of the deals described in the six scenarios and 4% say they would accept all of the deals. The substantial majority indicate that at least one of these transactions is potentially acceptable to them.

Furthermore, notable shares of the public say their consideration of each individual scenario is conditional: Their answer depends on the circumstances of the offer, their trust in those collecting and storing the data, and their sense of what the aftermath of data-sharing might look like.

The survey findings that form the basis of this report are different in some respects from conventional public opinion polling. In this study, respondents were presented with six hypothetical scenarios, each of which involved sharing some level of personal data in exchange for using a product or service. They were then asked whether the bargain they were offered in return for sharing that information was acceptable, not acceptable, or if “it depends” on the context of the choice. Upon making their selection, they were then asked to describe in their own words what factors contributed to making their selection.

The nearby chart runs down the six different scenarios that were examined in this study.
Many Americans are in an “it depends” frame of mind when they think about disclosing personal information or keeping it private when considering different scenarios...