Privacy Information

PEW Research Looks at How Americans View Privacy and Information Sharing

It can often be difficult determining when it would be appropriate to release personal information. A recent Pew Research Center study based on a survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups of 80 people revealed that there are different circumstances under which Americans think it is appropriate to reveal personal information or be viewed under surveillance.

Most Americans agreed that they would compromise aspects of their privacy in return for something beneficial. For example, respondents agreed that it would be acceptable for stores to track their purchases in return for promotional discounts. The privacy of their purchases over time is sacrificed for potential deals in the future. Additionally, more than half of participants viewed it as acceptable for an employer to implement security cameras after a robbery.

There are numerous factors that determine whether or not it is safe to sacrifice privacy, but getting something valuable in return is certainly a driving force. Bill Elwell, a freshman history major, said that benefits are a prominent aspect of decision making. “If a situation seems secure and favorable, then more people are likely to give out their personal information,” he said.

 Respondents were presented with a situation in which they could save money on their energy bill by installing an advanced thermostat that would keep track of their movements around the house. Even though the returned value (saving money on the energy bill) is beneficial, participants argued that this scenario is absolutely unacceptable.

Therefore, the situations in which privacy is compromised can vary heavily, and it depends on the amount of privacy divulged versus the substantiality of the reward.

“Generally I think that the study is pretty good in that it shows that people’s attitudes are complicated. Americans are willing to give up some privacy if they gain something like safety (i.e. surveillance cameras),” said Dr. Beth Sanders, Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice.

“Take for instance England, they have surveillance cameras everywhere and to some extent that’s a positive thing in terms of solving crime.  However, the reason England has so many cameras is that they essentially have no 4th Amendment.  Part of what makes America unique is our Constitution and we have a stronger right to privacy so here in the US law enforcement needs probable cause to search someone and to serve a warrant.”

As Sanders explains, the situation in America is very complicated, as the right to privacy is one of its longest standing pillars of freedom, so divulging personal information does not come as easily as it does in other countries. Elsewhere, the majority of people are compliant with giving up their privacy, however in the states, that concept is so foreign that many people are offended at the mere thought. “Part of why this is such an important issue is that technology is so globally available. When one says crime we typically think of street crime: a person robs another person face to face.  However, things like identity theft and many types of financial crime can take place with perpetrators from other countries,” said Sanders.

Crime involving technology cannot be immediately halted by a police officer patrolling the street, instead it is a long and arduous process in which the perpetrator may never even be found.

Austin Skelton, a sophomore political science student, said that comfortability is a huge determining factor in deciding when to divulge information.

“I think it is all about the level of comfort created,” said Skelton. “If the person feels that the source or platform is reliable enough, then I believe people will be willing to give out personal information.”

Moreover, Sanders explained some areas in which the study could be improved in order to guarantee more reliable results.

“Lastly, in terms of the study, there are some mild warnings.  First, the sample was 461 US adults.  Our Polling Institute here can tell you that a sample does not need to be large to be a good, representative sample, but many national polls like CBS news tend to use closer to 1000 or 2000 people to represent over 300 million Americans,” said Sanders.

“My concern is not so much sample size but the fact that they sampled online.  It still is likely the case that low-income, older, and rural Americans might not truly be represented in that type of sample.  Second, they used online focus groups, which the purpose of a focus group is that people interact, typically face to face.  So, the quotes they obtained from focus groups participants were useful and interesting, but I think to call it a focus group was misleading, it was more of an interview.”

Sanders also argued that there are other factors that contribute to whether or not an individual will share information about themselves. Since 9/11, it has been more acceptable to give up privacy in return for something of very high value -safety.

“9/11 really changed how Americans view privacy.  As a country, we seemed vulnerable for the first time in decades and in response to that fear, most Americans were willing to give up some privacy in exchange for safety, even if it meant things like wiretapping phone calls or monitoring email,” said Sanders. “Lastly, I think I expected the study to find more of a correlation with age and comfort with lack of privacy, as Millenials grew up with 9/11, social media, and internet shopping – more so than those of us Gen Xrs who remember life before the internet.”