Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Privacy and Information Sharing

1. The state of privacy

Americans frequently face choices about whether or not to share information about themselves in return for getting something that is potentially valuable to them. From retail stores that track customers’ shopping behavior in exchange for discounts to online applications that offer free services in exchange for serving personalized ads to users, Americans regularly face the choice: Is it worth it to hand over my personal information in exchange for something else?

Of course, in some cases, people have little control over whether personal information about them is collected. As one respondent in the survey summarized:

I share data every time I leave the house, whether I want to or not. Every time I use a credit card, every time I walk in 80% of the commercial establishments in the nation, every time I drive down streets in most any city or town in the nation, I’m being recorded in some fashion. The data is there, and it’s being used, and there isn’t a damn thing most of us can do about it, other than strongly resent it. The data isn’t really the problem. It’s who gets to see and use that data that creates problems. It’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle.

Another made the point that bargaining over personal information seems a perpetual part of modern life: “I continually have to decide how much personal information to share in return for prizes/money.” Another added: “Every day, the chance that your data is shared increases. All data are ultimately digitized.”

For the past two years, Pew Research Center surveys have mapped this complicated landscape and Americans’ nuanced feelings about privacy and surveillance.

The surveys have found that Americans conjure an array of ideas when they think about privacy. They feel privacy is important in their daily lives in a number of essential ways, starting with the idea of not being under surveillance all the time and the appeal of being able to share ideas and secrets with others in a way that is unobserved. Yet, they have a pervasive sense that they are under surveillance when in public. Very few feel they have a great deal of control over the data that is collected about them and how it is used.

Moreover, Americans have low levels of trust in the government and business sectors that they associate with data collection and monitoring. They are not sure their core communications channels are secure, and they have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of the records that are maintained by a variety of institutions in the digital age. Indeed, noteworthy numbers of them have suffered privacy breaches, especially younger adults.

While some Americans have taken modest steps to stem the tide of data collection, few have adopted advanced privacy-enhancing measures. They are divided about the value of government surveillance programs aimed at thwarting terrorists. And majorities expect that a wide range of organizations should have limits on the length of time that they can retain records of their activities and communications. Additionally, they say it is important to preserve the ability to be anonymous for certain online activities.

In the online focus groups for this study, the theme of contingency came up in responses to each scenario. Asked about the acceptability of surveillance cameras at a workplace where some thefts had occurred, one respondent said:

“It depends if the cameras are in public areas (i.e. hallways, public gathering areas, lobbies, etc.) and in storage areas where supplies or personal belongings are kept (i.e. closets, locker rooms, supply rooms) this would seem to be sufficient. Cameras that monitor personal work spaces would be invasive even to the most diligent employee with absolutely nothing to hide except perhaps a sneeze, a scratch, a clothing adjustment or just bending over wrong in front of the camera.”

Another respondent, explaining his answer about his physician inviting him to use an online medical records system, wrote:

“It depends if I think the site is secure enough to put my information on. If it was a weak site with low development I would not use it. If it was high security like a bank site I would use it.”

And yet another respondent, asked whether she would allow a tracking device placed on her car to monitor her driving habits perhaps leading to lower insurance payments, explained how these factors would shape her judgment:

“It depends on how much the discount would be and what their privacy policy would be. I would not agree to it if the data is shared with anyone at all, and I would want it to be stored only temporarily and securely.”

What’s the public’s mood? People’s level of anxiety and hopefulness are all over the place

In light of these current and future concerns, participants in the focus groups were asked how much dismay or even anger they felt at the current state of things, and they offered a range of answers trying to pinpoint their level of concern.

Not hopeless, necessarily – I think that the landscape has so fundamentally shifted that we have an entirely new paradigm to deal with.

“It’s hopeless.”

“No, they are as bad as we make it sound.”

“I’m not hopeless, just resigned.”

“Loss of privacy is inevitable. I’ve accepted that.”

“Nothing is completely safe. That’s just life in these times.”

[Loss of privacy]

“Not hopeless, necessarily – I think that the landscape has so fundamentally shifted that we have an entirely new paradigm to deal with.”

“I think people are not happy with everyone in their business.”

“It’s bleak about privacy – the more controls the government enables the less privacy we have. We have lost a lot of privacy in the U.S. since 9/11 and are losing more every day, and it appears no one cares. The less freedom we have the less privacy we should expect.”

Some focus group participants tried hard to wrestle with the complexities of the subject, moving it beyond a binary situation of privacy or no privacy and speaking instead about how they tried to live out their views about privacy. A woman in one of the groups said: “Monitoring in public places is completely different from being monitored in your own home, or in your bank accounts, and god knows what else. I went off Facebook for several years just because I assumed everything was being collected about me, and I wanted to avoid that. And, of course, there’s also the matter of leaving a record behind of your political and other views that could be detrimental in certain cases. For instance, if you apply for a job, and the employer thinks your opinions are too liberal.”

Some are concerned about the future of privacy; some have hope for a technological fix

In online focus groups tied to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, people were often downcast about the future of privacy, as were many experts who participated in a wide and diverse canvassing by the Center last year about the long-term fate of privacy. A sampler of some of the participants’ views from the most recent research:

I think that the concept of ‘privacy’ no longer exists. I think it is more about ‘informed consent.’

Our life has become an open book. What are you gonna do?”

“Privacy as we knew it in the past is already gone. Privacy in the future will be very different. We will have very little about our daily lives kept private. Our important records such as banking and medical will become tighter, likely through biometric access, but I expect the hackers to keep up with even that technology to obtain what they want.”

“I think that there will be less and less privacy.”

“It’s an annoyance that will mostly be fixed.”

“I think that the concept of ‘privacy’ no longer exists. I think it is more about ‘informed consent.’”

“I think law abiding citizens sit back way too much. There are a multitude of things we should be demanding legislation about as it is.”

[and, have no ]

“The law is way behind technology. Privacy was written for a non-digital world. Don’t expect any privacy in the future.”

“I think a backlash is coming against too much intrusion. Privacy services will become popular.”

The scenarios are explored in depth

This report now turns to the individual scenarios and people’s responses about whether they feel it is acceptable or not to agree to share personal information in return for a product, service or benefit that is being offered.

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