Pew survey finds U.S. consumers conflicted about disclosure of personal data

January 15, 2016 - 

A Pew Research Center study released yesterday found no consistent pattern on decisions to give up privacy in return for discounts, rewards or other benefits.

The study was based on a Pew survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups of 80 people that examined a variety of circumstances under which many Americans would share personal data or permit surveillance in return for getting something of perceived value.

The survey found that a majority (52 percent) of those surveyed said they would allow their medical data to be uploaded to a secure site in order to allow their doctor to keep track of their health.

But only 27 percent said it was acceptable for a “smart thermostat” to monitor movements in the home to potentially save on energy costs.

Forty-seven percent said it was fine for retailers to keep track of shopping habits to offer discounts through loyalty programs, while 32 percent said it was not acceptable.

The study also found that a majority of Americans think it would be acceptable (by a 54 to 24 percent margin) for employers to install monitoring cameras in order to track and prevent workplace theft.

According to the Pew Research Center, the findings suggest that the phrase that best captures Americans’ views on the choice between privacy versus disclosure of personal information is: “It depends.”

The survey found that a significant minority of American adults have felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies.

People’s views on the key trade-off 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.

In extended comments online and through focus groups, people indicated that their interest and overall comfort level depends on the company or organization with which they are bargaining and how trustworthy or safe they perceive the firm to be.

Interest and comfort also depend on what happens to consumer data after it is collected, and especially if that data is made available to third-parties. Consumer interest and comfort also depend on how long data is retained.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.