Public Perceptions on Privacy

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Today’s new report by the Pew Research Center gives the lie to the notion that privacy is unimportant to the average American. Instead, the big take away is that individuals feel like they lack any control over their personal information. These feelings are directed at the public and private sector alike, and suggest a profound trust gap is emerging in the age of big data.

While Pew has framed its report as a survey of Americans’ attitudes post-Snowden, the report presents a number of alarming statistics of which businesses ought take note. Advertisers take the brunt of criticism, and the entire report broadly suggests that public concerns about data brokers and the opacity of data collection are only growing. Seventy-one percent of respondents say that advertisers can be trusted only some of the time, and 16% say they never can. These numbers track every demographic group, and indeed, get worse among lower income households. Eighty percent of social network users are concerned about the information being shared with unknown third parties. Even as Americans are concerned about government access to personal information, they increasingly support more regulation of advertisers. This support is strong across an array of demographic groups.

Further, even as consumers remain willing to trade personal information in return for access to free Internet services, two-thirds of consumers disapprove of the suggestion that online services work due to increased access to personal information. More problematic, however, is that 91% of Americans now believe that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” Though this Pew study does not show that privacy values are trumping digital services — and every indication suggests that they are not — it is a likely topic for Pew to return to in the future. It would be interesting to see whether this anxiety translates into action.

However, in the meantime, anxiety about privacy suggests an opportunity for companies to win with consumers simply by providing them with more control. Fully 61% “would like to do more” to protect their online privacy. We have repeatedly called for efforts to “featurize” data and have supported efforts to help consumers engage with their personal information. Many companies already provide meaningful controls on the collection and use of personal information, but the challenge is both making consumers aware of these options and ensuring that taking advantage of these dashboards and toggles is as fun as using a simple app.

So we need more tools to make privacy fun. And industry may also need to a better job staying attuned to consumer preferences. Pew reiterates how context-dependent privacy is, and that the value of privacy and consumer interest in protecting their privacy can vary widely from person to person, in different contexts and transactions, and perhaps most pointedly, in response to current events. “[U]sers bounce back and forth between different levels of disclosure depending on the context,” the report argues.

The challenge is ensuring that context is understood similarly by all parties. Part of this is understanding where and when personal information is sensitive. This is a debate that was highlighted at the FTC’s recent big data workshop, and is a theme that increasingly arises in conversations about big data and civil rights. Aside from Social Security numbers, which 95% of respondents considered to be sensitive information, data ranging from health information and phone and email message content to location information and birth date could be viewed as sensitive depending upon the context.

Depending upon context, everything is sensitive or nothing is sensitive. Obviously, this can be a tricky balancing act for consumers to manage. Information management requires users to juggle different online personas, platforms, and audiences. Thus, the door is open for companies to both take certain information off the table — or make a better case why some sensitive information is invaluable for certain services.

While Pew has not shown whether these privacy anxieties trump other pressing economic or social concerns, the report also suggests that the Americans’ perceptions of privacy are heavily intertwined with their understanding of security. Privacy may be amorphous, but security is less so — but being proactive on the one can often be a boon to the other. Positive and proactive public actions on privacy are essential if we are to reverse Americans’ doubts that they can trust sharing their personal information.

-Joseph Jerome, Policy Counsel