Americans Willing To Give Up Privacy Online For Convenience

A new study shows that we put a price on our privacy online—and that we don't even understand some of the pitfalls

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jan 14, 2016 at 4:28 PM ET

A new Pew Research Center survey reveals Americans increasingly view their private data as a form of digital currency: Yes, they’re willing to give it up, to a point, but it depends on what they’re getting in return.

The survey’s results are a mixed bag. They note that Americans are seemingly uncomfortable with online tracking methods they’re likely already willingly subjecting themselves to but are relatively comfortable allowing their most sensitive information to be made available online. For example, the majority of people Pew surveyed find ad targeting on social media unacceptable, yet nearly three-quarters of Americans have profiles on Facebook, which most certainly targets ads to its users. And a majority of respondents said they were happy to upload their sensitive health records to a website their doctor “promises” is secure just to make scheduling medical appointments easier.

So just how far are Americans willing to go in giving up their data? Views on the issue change on a case-by-case basis, with social media ranking among the highest categories of concern when it came to the potential for companies to utilize and profit from personal information provided by users.

The Pew study, which is based on a survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups, found that only 33 percent of Americans would be willing to post their name and picture on a social site on which they’ll receive targeted ads “in exchange” for free use of the service.

The finding emerged from a poll question posing a specific scenario: Your high school is using a new social platform that allows you to find out about a class reunion and reconnect with old friends, but if you participate—for free—by using your real name and a photo of yourself, the site will then use your personal info and activity to target you with ads. Fifty-one percent of respondents said that was unacceptable.

Pew says the most notable difference in views regarding this question are related to age, as about 40 percent of respondents younger than 50 called that kind of deal “acceptable” compared to only 24 percent of those older than 50. That’s particularly interesting given that 71 percent of all American adults, including 31 percent of all American seniors, were on Facebook as of September 2014, according to a previous Pew survey. Granted, respondents to the class reunion site question were being asked about a social platform only for old high school classmates, which may have made it seem less compelling than a service like Facebook on which they could connect with anyone also on the service.

Another area about which Americans feel especially uneasy is surveillance that has a GPS component. Presented with a scenario in which an auto insurance provider offered a discounted rate in exchange for the installation of a device that allows monitoring of location and driving speed, nearly half of respondents said they found that exchange unacceptable.

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On the other hand, a surprising number of respondents stated they would be comfortable allowing their doctors office to upload health records to what they have been promised is a secure web site. While past Pew research shows that Americans consider information about their health and the medications they take to be especially sensitive, ranking only below their Social Security number, people seemed to care more about convenience than potential data breaches. Respondents highlighted a trust in their doctors protecting privacy, with one respondent adding, “I would want a document that contained the promise and was signed by the doctor.”

High-profile data breaches of sensitive healthcare-related information, like the one that affected nearly 80 million customers of Anthem Health Insurance last year, show that this mindset may not be entirely informed.

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Interestingly, Americans are mostly fine with being tracked at work. Perhaps that’s a result of expectations. Despite various state laws that aim to protect privacy within the workplace, work isn’t your private life, after all, and being filmed while at work is simply par for the course for many employed in food, retail and security fields, among others. Over half of the respondents said they believed it was acceptable for their employer to surveil them while at work using HD security cameras that use facial recognition technology.

What happens in private, however, is a completely different story. The majority of respondents said that they would not be comfortable using a smart thermostat in their home that employs sensors to find out when people move from room to room in order to help residents save money on their energy bills. The main concern they expressed was the potential security risk of having an outside vendor know when their home was empty.

One key takeaway from the survey as a whole: Pew reports that many respondents were downcast about the future of privacy laws in the U.S. As one respondent put it, “Our life has become an open book. What are you gonna do?”