Willing to Disclose Data for the Right Deal

Trading personal information for discounts is generally viewed as acceptable, but many are leery about data breaches, spam and over-profiling.

Depending on the deal offered and how much risk they face, many Americans say they might provide personal information, according to a Pew Research Center study. Some accept this tradeoff as a part of modern life, and others are hopeful that technological and legal solutions can be found.

Nearly half (47%) say the basic bargain offered by retail loyalty cards—namely, that stores track their purchases in exchange for occasional discounts—is acceptable; a third (32%) call such an arrangement unacceptable. About 20% say it depends on the deal. And most Americans think it acceptable for employers to install monitoring cameras in the wake of a series of workplace thefts.

Still, while many Americans are willing to share personal details in exchange for tangible benefits, they are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that data once companies have collected it.

Shown a scenario in which they might save money on their energy bill by installing a smart thermostat that would monitor their movements around the home, most adults surveyed consider this an unacceptable tradeoff (by a 55% to 27% margin).

Privacy tradeoffs raise issues such as the likelihood of getting spam, the risk of data breaches, the special intimacy tied to location data and overdone customer profiling. Survey respondents expressed concerns about the safety and security of their personal data in light of numerous high-profile data breaches. They also expressed anger about the barrage of unsolicited emails, phone calls, customized ads or other contacts that inevitably arises when they elect to share some information about themselves.

Respondents’ interest and overall comfort level depends on the company or organization and how trustworthy or safe they perceive the firm to be. Comfort levels also hinge on what happens to their data, especially if third parties enter the picture.

Among hypothetical scenarios most respondents found acceptable were office surveillance cameras and online health-care information sites shared by doctors. Scenarios unacceptable to most respondents included devices for insurance companies to driving speeds and location, and a social media site collecting real information and photos for class reunions.