December 30, 2015

Americans conflicted about sharing personal information with companies

A significant minority of American adults have felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies. When asked if they felt confident they understood what would be done with their personal information as they were deciding whether or not to share it, 50% said they felt confident they understood – but 47% said they were not confident.

These new findings are from a Pew Research Center survey in early 2015 in which people were asked about their feelings as they considered sharing personal information with companies in the “last month” of when the survey was conducted.

People had different feelings on sharing personal info with companiesAs the chart illustrates, a sizable number of U.S. adults said they were confused over information provided in company privacy policies, discouraged by the amount of effort needed to understand the implications of sharing their data, and impatient because they wanted to learn more about the information-sharing process but felt they needed to make a decision right away.

These latest results add to the picture painted by several recent surveys about Americans’ views about privacy in a number of contexts.

For instance, one Pew Research Center poll found that 91% of adults “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they had lost control over how personal information was collected and used by companies. Another revealed that very few Americans felt they had a great deal of control over the data that had been collected about them and how it was used. Beyond that, the surveys showed that they had low levels of trust in the government and business sectors that they associate with data collection and monitoring; and that they had little confidence in ability of various commercial and governmental institutions to maintain the security of their personal information.

In the latest survey, there were few noteworthy differences in the responses given by different groups. Men and women were equally likely to have experienced negative emotions around sharing their personal information, and the same was true among those who are better off and less well-off financially. However, those under age 50 were a bit more likely than those 50 and older to say they have recently been impatient about providing personal information to a company (35% vs. 23%).

Along with asking about specific emotions they might have experienced recently, the survey also asked respondents to give a recent example in which they were asked to share personal information in return for something and to explain what they did in response.

Some of the open-ended answers to these questions highlighted the tension between the desire to protect one’s personal information versus the lure of convenience and cost savings:

I wanted a quote on automobile warranty, but the site required my phone number in addition to name and email. I do not like to get “boiler room” calls on my phone, so I gave an invalid phone number.

An Internet site was asking for control of my computer’s camera. I refused. They would have access to my personal space.

My car insurance offered discounts for the ability to monitor my driving. I felt it was too invasive.

I declined to enroll in a home-improvement website because their privacy policy allowed them to give my personal information to third parties. They made a verbal promise that they did not have any plans to disclose personal information, but they would not alter their privacy policy to back up their promise.

At work, we were offered the possibility to sign-up for additional disability insurance coverage. To get coverage you had to agree to answer a few questions and allow the insurance company the right to obtain whatever medical information is available and post it on an insurance company shared database, essentially making my personal history public. I declined to even consider the insurance any further.

On the other hand, others spoke of situations in which gaining access to free services or other benefits was worth the “cost” of sharing their information and interests:

I signed up with the hospital to get info about my family’s medical records online.

Posting of resume online for job search. Needed for visibility to employers, but also risked being available for marketers, etc. My choice was between limited exposure of information and consequently limited [job-hiring] potential vs. full exposure and greater potential. I chose to post.

I got a new [gaming console] and wanted access to the online store. I was hesitant about sharing all the information they asked for but in the end I did sign up because I wanted access to the store.

Today – I needed to get a phone number for a restaurant. Phone asked for my location. I normally decline but needed the number quickly so I agreed.

I went off Facebook for several years because I believed that all my information was being collected, and perhaps sold. I recently went back on because of the power of the social media in selling books. I could not post on my most recent book’s Facebook page without rejoining Facebook. So I did.

I was loading apps on my new smart phone that required knowledge of my present location. I loaded them [because I] decided that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Every phone app needs access to many things. If too intrusive or if it could collect data I am concerned about I do not download it.

After a computer crash, I agreed to send information about my activities (on my Macbook) leading up to the crash to Apple. While sharing what I do on my personal computer does bother me, I decided it was worth it if Apple can use the data to improve their software and patch bugs so that I would not experience similar computer crashes in the future.

Still others chose to alternate between sharing some information about themselves while faking other personal data:

For any non-essential website (essential is my bank, credit card, insurance company, etc.) I choose to not share my real birthday. I understand the marketing and demographic component of why they collect birthday information so I choose a fake birthday [that] is similar to my real birthday, but I don’t share my real birthday online with non-essential websites. This is because I’m afraid of data breaches. I don’t like my real birthday tied to my name and other personal information because it’s one more thing that hackers can then easily get a hold of to steal identities online.

I recently wanted to get info on life insurance for my dad but needed to answer questions about myself which I answered but with wrong info and name now I’m getting letters and calls from varies insurance companies asking for that person which does not exist. I’m glad i didn’t give my info out.

Note: For full topline results and survey methodology, click here.

Topics: Internet Activities, Online Privacy and Safety

  1. Photo of Lee Rainie

    is director of internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center.