When Are Americans Willing to Share Personal Data? When They Think They're Getting Something in Return

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In short, people are making careful risk calculations every time they’re asked to give up personal information, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether the potential tangible benefits make the exchange worth it.

In a new survey, Pew researchers set out to understand why Americans sometimes decide to share their personal data with others -- employers, retailers or social media sites, for instance -- and what makes them think twice.

It’s an attempt to delineate where the American populus’ boundaries are (are people so comfortable in the digital economy that they’re willing to share personal information with almost anyone, or so concerned about data breaches that they’ll protect it at all costs?). The answer, researchers found, is complicated.

In short, people are making careful risk calculations every time they’re asked to give up personal information, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether the potential benefits make the exchange worth it.

Pew presented 461 adults, and 80 people from online focus groups, with six hypothetical scenarios and asked them whether they considered the privacy tradeoff acceptable, not acceptable, or “it depends.” Scenarios ranged from facial-recognition video surveillance in the workplace, installed to catch thieves, to a doctor’s office uploading patient records to an online system.

Pew found that Americans didn’t neatly fall into categories of “privacy fundamentalists” or “free-wheeling” with consistent representation across scenarios, said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. The majority of respondents found at least one of the scenarios acceptable -- only about 17 percent of respondents didn’t like any of the scenarios, and only 4 percent would accept all of them. Sometimes, their answers were guided by ideas about geographic locations they felt were inherently less private, like the workplace, or more private, like their cars. 

When they found scenarios acceptable, it was generally because they were receiving something of value in return. For instance, when asked if they would accept a loyalty card from a retailer giving discounts, in exchange for tracking shopping habits and selling that data to third parties, almost half -- 47 percent -- said it was acceptable, though about 32 percent said it wasn’t. Open-ended feedback included responses such as, “[i]f the store shares information that would pertain to the type of things I would purchase, it would be OK.”

In another scenario --  an employer installs high-resolution security cameras with facial recognition technology after a string of thefts in the workplace to identify the thieves and keeps the footage on file to track employee attendance and performance -- 54 percent said it was acceptable, as compared to 24 percent who found it unacceptable.

“It is the company's business to protect their assets in any way they see fit," one respondent said.

Respondents did not like scenarios in which they had to share location data at home or in their car, which “really triggered anxiety," Rainie said. For instance, when faced with the tradeoff of saving money on an energy bill in exchange for installing a “smart thermostat” that would also track their movements at home, 55 percent thought it was unacceptable, 27 percent found it acceptable.

Respondents and focus group participants said, when faced with an information-sharing tradeoff, they would ask questions about whether data is shared with third parties, how long it will be retained. Ranie added that respondents said they “get really annoyed when there are followup encounters that they never asked for,” like spammy or promotional emails for products unrelated to the services they signed up for.

For instance, one respondent wrote: “I would take the [retail] deal, as long as my personal information is not shared with the third party, such as my name and contact information. If it's just my demographics -- age, city, what I buy -- that's OK. If they want to print coupons at the checkout that target me as a consumer, that's OK, but not contacting me personally (mail, email, phone, etc.) with advertising. I hate hate hate that stuff."

Respondents also felt there generally isn’t enough disclosure about who is collecting information and how it’s used by companies. One wrote: “I have no idea how I'd investigate what info is collected about me in places like Google and Facebook, other than the information I've provided them, such as my profile info.”

Ranie added that there aren’t major differences in what people are willing to share based on their demographics. For instance, people who are younger than 50 years old are more likely than those over 50 to share their information on a free social media site, even if they then receive targeted ads -- 40 percent compared to 25 percent. But respondents 50 and older were more likely to find it acceptable to have their medical records online -- 62 percent -- than younger people, with 45 percent. 

"Clearly, people place different value on different kinds of information-sharing exchanges," the report said. 

The broad story, Rainie said, is "that for most people, under most circumstances, privacy is not an either-or proposition . . . Decisions about sharing are driven by the context, by the . . . circumstances that they have in their lives.”

And even while consumers find a scenario acceptable, “the trustworthiness of the entity is a real significant factor to them. They’re very anxious to know what’s going to happen to the data after the initial transaction is over.”

(Image via /Shutterstock.com)