What are Americans willing to trade their privacy for?

A majority of Americans questioned in a Pew study said that they might be willing to trade their privacy depending on the benefit they were being offered in exchange, the circumstances of their lives, and what they felt about the company wanting to collect their information.

Virginia Mayo/AP/File
The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Brussels.

Many Americans are willing to share their private information, but it depends on what they get in return.

A Pew Research Center study released on Thursday revealed that Americans are often reluctant to disclose personal information, and get upset when companies use it to target them with ads.

Yet a majority of those surveyed said that they might be willing to trade some of their privacy for a tangible benefit, depending on the perceived value of benefit, the circumstances of their lives, and how they felt about the company wanting to collect their information.

The study probed 461 American adults and nine online focus groups of 80 people and presented them with six hypothetical scenarios in which they were asked to share their information in exchange for something in return.

The most acceptable scenario presented a situation in which those surveyed said they would trade some privacy for personal security. The participants were asked if they will be willing to let their employers install high-resolution security cameras in order to track theft of personal belongings in office settings. A majority of participants (54 percent) said that they would be willing to accept the installation cameras – knowing that the cameras would also be able to monitor their activities in the office. Twenty-four percent, however, said they found such an exchange unacceptable.

Most of the participants (55 percent) strongly disapproved a scenario in which a new technology company would ask to install a smart thermostat that would track movements within the house, potentially saving energy bill money.

“A learning thermostat is a great idea and exists already. But sharing data about my movements with someone else ‘on the other end’ is not acceptable. That’s an invasion of privacy. Nobody needs to know my movements within my house,” one of the participants said.

While survey respondents were able to indicate approval or disapproval for most scenarios,  a significant number of people remained in the “it depends” category, the study notes. About 15 to 21 percent of the people wanted to know more about the scenarios, or wanted to change a few details before they were ready to say that they could approve the exchange being offered.

Seventeen percent of the participants said they would not accept any of the scenarios; 4 percent said that they would accept all of the scenarios.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no consistent demographic patterns as to how participants responded. One example noted was that “those under age 50 are more likely than those 50 and older to find the scenario involving a new social media site acceptable (40% to 25%). Yet those 50 and older were more likely than those who are younger to find the online medical records scenario acceptable (62% to 45%).”

As for the future, many participants said that the continuous advancement of technology renders the erosion of privacy inevitable. One of the participants asserts, “the next generation will say ‘privacy? … What is that? I really think that the next generation will not even understand the value of privacy. Privacy will be a thing of the past.”

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