When It Comes To Privacy, Some Americans Are Willing To Negotiate

Image courtesy of Rich Renomeron

We recently wrote about the apparent reluctance of drivers to join auto insurance programs that could save them money in exchange for giving up some of their privacy. While many people want little to do with this sort of tracking, there are still a large number of consumers who don’t take such a hardline stance and are willing to consider ceding their privacy if they receive some benefit in return.

The results of a new Pew Research Center study show that Americans don’t have a fixed position on the issue of privacy, but instead view it as a fluid matter that is highly contingent on the situation.

One of the examples tested by Pew involved the same sort of insurance program referenced above — you plug a device into your car that provides your insurer with location and speed info. For doing so, your insurer may give you a better rate on your policy.

Only about 37% of study respondents deemed this “acceptable,” compared to 45% who said it was “unacceptable.” These results aren’t too far off from what the insurance companies say is their current adoption rate for these programs.

But the key group here is the 16% of people who answered that “it depends,” indicating that these are people who want the discount but want more details on what exactly is being given up in exchange.

Judging by the comments of people in this gray zone, many of them would be willing to participate were it not for the location-tracking part of the program.

“Monitoring driving habits might be fine to allow insurance discounts, but do they really need to know where you are?” asked one of these respondents. “I am an honest person, but I don’t like to be checked up on and the whole world knowing what I do.”

“I would have to know more. I like the part about the speed,” said another. “But, as far as where a person goes, it is their private personal business. I would agree to allow them to track distance or mileage, but, not actual location.”


Interestingly, one scenario that a majority of respondents deemed unacceptable is one that most of us take part in every day: giving up our privacy for free access to social media.

The scenario describes a social media platform for a class reunion that “would reconnect you with old friends and allow you to communicate more easily with those who are attending.”

You join this fictional site using your real name and posting a photo. “Your access to the service is free, but your activity on the site would be used by the site to deliver advertisements it hopes will be appealing to you,” explains the study.

This basically describes Facebook, which has some 1.5 billion active monthly users. But in the survey, 51% of respondents said they would not go for something this invasive.

At least some of the 33% who don’t see a problem with this sort of tracking seem aware of, and resigned to, the exchange involved in getting access to a site for free.

“To be honest, I don’t really care,” said one respondent. “That is especially the case when I voluntarily use a service in return for giving up some information. For example, I use Gmail for free, but I know that Google will capture some information in return. I’m fine with that.”

Age is a huge factor in this particular scenario. Around 40% of respondents under the age of 50 are fine with this arrangement, compared to only 24% of people ages 50 and older.


In some cases, the majority of Americans are just fine with giving up some of their privacy. When asked about workplace surveillance, 54% of respondents said it was fine for their employer to install “high-resolution security cameras that use facial recognition technology” to prevent workplace theft and improve security. These people didn’t even mind that the recorded footage would stay on file for “as long as the company wishes to retain it” or that it “could be used to track various measures of employee attendance and performance.”

The 21% of people in the “it depends” middle group did have questions and concerns about these last two issues, indicating that they would be willing to have the security cameras if the footage were kept for limited lengths of time, or if it weren’t used to evaluate employees.

Likewise, a majority (52%) of respondents say they would have no problem if their doctor used a system that gave you direct access to medical records — and made scheduling appointments easier — by placing it all on a secure website. That’s twice as many people as those who said this was an unacceptable idea.

Once again, the people in the middle like the idea but want more information about the execution, especially with regard to the security of the site.

“Other than just the doctor’s promise, I would want a document that contained the promise and was signed by the doctor,” says one respondent.

“They would have to prove it’s a secure site,” adds another. “Also there should be some sort of a major fine if it’s not secure at all times.”


While each of the scenarios presented in the study showed definitive approval or disapproval, each of them had significant groups of respondents (from 15% to 21%) who just want to know more — or who want to tweak the terms of the scenario — before making a decision either way.

“These findings suggest that the phrase that best captures Americans’ views on the choice between privacy vs. disclosure of personal information is, ‘It depends,'” write the researchers. “People’s views on the key tradeoff of the modern, digital economy – namely, that consumers offer information about themselves in exchange for something of value – are shaped by both the conditions of the deal and the circumstances of their lives.”

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