Most Americans see privacy issues in commercial settings as contingent and context-dependent. A new Pew Research Center study based on a survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups of 80 people finds that there are a variety of circumstances under which many Americans would share personal information or permit surveillance in return for getting something of perceived value. For instance, a majority of Americans think it would be acceptable (by a 54% to 24% margin) for employers to install monitoring cameras following a series of workplace thefts. 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 to them, even as a third (32%) call it unacceptable.

Still, while many Americans are willing to share personal information in exchange for tangible benefits, they are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that information once companies have collected it. For example, when presented with 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 consider this an unacceptable tradeoff (by a 55% to 27% margin). As one survey respondent explained: “There will be no ‘SMART’ anythings in this household. I have enough personal data being stolen by the government and sold [by companies] to spammers now.”

In online focus groups and in open-ended responses to a nationally representative online survey, many people expressed concerns about the safety and security of their personal data in light of numerous high-profile data breaches. They also regularly 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. In response to a question about having their online behavior tracked in exchange for getting access to a free online service , one survey respondent wrote: “I want control over what ads are being ‘pushed back’ to me: I have no interest in ‘puppy portraits’ but I may be interested in cameras, equipment, etc. In an effort to ‘target’ my preferences, my inbox gets full of [expletive] that is not relevant to me.”

These findings suggest that the phrase that best captures Americans’ views on the choice between privacy vs. disclosure of personal information is, “It depends.” 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. 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. It depends on what happens to their data after they are collected, especially if the data are made available to third parties. And it also depends on how long the data are retained.

The scenarios obviously did not comprehensively cover the vast range of possibilities where people would consider sharing personal information in return for a benefit. But it is interesting to note that 17% of adults say they wouldn’t take any of the deals described in the six scenarios and 4% say they would accept all of the deals. The substantial majority indicate that at least one of these transactions is potentially acceptable to them.

Furthermore, notable shares of the public say their consideration of each individual scenario is conditional: Their answer depends on the circumstances of the offer, their trust in those collecting and storing the data, and their sense of what the aftermath of data-sharing might look like.

The survey findings that form the basis of this report are different in some respects from conventional public opinion polling. In this study, respondents were presented with six hypothetical scenarios, each of which involved sharing some level of personal data in exchange for using a product or service. They were then asked whether the bargain they were offered in return for sharing that information was acceptable, not acceptable, or if “it depends” on the context of the choice. Upon making their selection, they were then asked to describe in their own words what factors contributed to making their selection.

The nearby chart runs down the six different scenarios that were examined in this study.

Office surveillance cameras

Several co-workers of yours have recently had personal belongings stolen from your workplace, and the company is planning to install high-resolution security cameras that use facial recognition technology to help identify the thieves and make the workplace more secure. The footage would stay on file as long as the company wishes to retain it, and could be used to track various measures of employee attendance and performance. Read more about this scenario.

Sharing health information

A new health information website is being used by your doctor’s office to help manage patient records. Your participation would allow you to have access to your own health records and make scheduling appointments easier. If you choose to participate, you will be allowing your doctor’s office to upload your health records to the website and the doctor promises it is a secure site. Read more about this scenario.

Retail loyalty cards

A grocery store has offered you a free loyalty card that will save you money on your purchases. In exchange, the store will keep track of your shopping habits and sell this data to third parties. Read more about this scenario.

Auto insurance

Your insurance company is offering a discount to you if you agree to place a device in your car that allows monitoring of your driving speed and location. After the company collects data about your driving habits, it may offer you further discounts to reward you for safe driving. Read more about this scenario.

Free social media

A new social media platform is being used by your former high school to help manage communications about a class reunion. You can find out the basic information about the reunion over email, but your participation on the social media site would reconnect you with old friends and allow you to communicate more easily with those who are attending. If you choose to participate, you will be creating a profile using your real name and sharing a photo of yourself. 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. Read more about this scenario.

Smart thermostat

A new technology company has created an inexpensive thermostat sensor for your house that would learn about your temperature zone and movements around the house and potentially save you on your energy bill. It is programmable remotely in return for sharing data about some of the basic activities that take place in your house like when people are there and when they move from room to room. Read more about this scenario.

Source: Survey conducted Jan. 28 – Feb. 16, 2015.

Note: Refused responses not shown.

Some issues people ponder as they consider privacy tradeoffs include the likelihood of getting spam, the risk of data breaches, the special intimacy tied to location data and overdone customer profiling

Contingency permeates the reactions to each of these different scenarios, but a number of other themes emerged as well – especially when it comes to tradeoffs that people find not acceptable. Some of the common themes that came across in the open-ended answers and focus group responses include:

  • The initial bargain might be fine, but the follow-up by companies that collect the data can be annoying and unwanted. People repeatedly expressed anger at the barrage of unwanted emails that often comes after the initial transaction. One survey respondent wrote: “I would take the deal, as long as my personal information is not shared with the third party, such as my name and contact information. If it’s just my demographics – age, city, what I buy – that’s OK. If they want to print coupons at the checkout that target me as a consumer, that’s OK, but not contacting me personally (mail, email, phone, etc.) with advertising. I hate hate hate that stuff.”
  • Scammers and hackers are a constant threat. There is widespread worry that people’s information is vulnerable, even when the companies that collect it do their best to keep it safe. As one respondent summarized: “The ‘secure’ sites are continually making the news when they are hacked. We can have our information stolen from banks, credit card companies, hospitals … all secure … all hacked in the past. The more I ‘put it out there,’ the more likely my information will go somewhere hazardous to my well-being.”
  • Location data seems especially precious in the age of the smartphone. Some of the most strongly negative reactions came in response to scenarios involving the sharing of personal location data. One respondent put it as follows: “I continually deny location services on my phone because I don’t want the chance of ads coming up.” A focus group participant said she doesn’t worry about most personal data collection “except where I am, especially in my home. If anything involves the use of cameras, including on my phone or computer, that’s the worst privacy invasion for me.”
  • Profiling sometimes seems creepy. The words “creepy” and “Big Brother” and “stalking” were used regularly in the answers of those who worry about their personal information. One focus group participant summed up this view: “Some of the marketing tracking things are creepy. I look at one thing online and then see it on every single site for weeks. At first – intriguing. Then creepy.” Another argued: “Perhaps we need to teach the younger generations about BIG BROTHER. It seems he has been forgotten.” To which another group member added: “Orwell was a prophet.”
  • People are not happy when data are collected for one purpose but are used for other, often more invasive purposes. Many Americans express suspicion that data collectors (from employers to advertisers) have ulterior motives in their pursuit of personal data. One respondent put it this way: “I do not trust insurance companies, and I feel they could use this data to increase my rates under whatever pretend excuse. Insurance companies are in the risk management business, and they cannot reduce that risk at the cost of their customers. The more they know, the less risk for them and the higher cost for customers.”

The potential benefits of sharing personal information include saving money, gaining access to useful services or information, and facilitating commercial and social encounters

Yet even as they worry about the negative downstream consequences of sharing their personal information, these findings also illustrate that consumers understand and appreciate the benefits of sharing – at least under certain circumstances. The key themes here include:

  • Free is a good price. The social media scenario, in particular, drew a number of short answers that made clear people like no-cost services. One focus group participant explained why he was comfortable letting a technology company know about him in return for free email service: “To be honest, I don’t really care. 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.”
  • Sharing helps lubricate commercial and social interactions. People often need convenient and inexpensive access to information, goods and services. Moreover, they generally understand that disclosing personal information makes those transactions possible – and in fact, can make them more desirable to consumers. One survey participant found the loyalty card scenario acceptable and explained: “If the store shares information that would pertain to the type of things I would purchase, it would be OK.”
  • Certain realms are not inherently private and different rules about surveillance and sharing apply. Certain physical spaces or types of information are seen as inherently less private than others. One survey respondent noted how these norms influence his views on the acceptability of workplace surveillance cameras: “It is the company’s business to protect their assets in any way they see fit.”

Interestingly, there are no consistent demographic patterns to people’s answers on different scenarios. Sometimes people’s views vary by age, household income or education, and other times they do not. And at times when there are differences, they are not always either consistently protective of privacy or consistently willing to disclose information. For instance, those under age 50 are more likely than those 50 and older to find the scenario involving a new social media site acceptable (40% to 25%). Yet those 50 and older are more likely than those who are younger to find the online medical records scenario acceptable (62% to 45%). Clearly, people place different value on different kinds of information-sharing exchanges.

There are no statistically meaningful differences in women’s and men’s answers to any of these scenarios.

Where does this leave Americans? Many focus group participants are uncertain, resigned and annoyed – or worse. Still, some accept this is part of modern life and others are hopeful that technological and legal solutions can be found

In nine online focus groups tied to these issues, the 80 participants gave voice to a range of emotions about the state of privacy and its future. While the focus groups cannot be seen as representative of the whole adult population, it was often the case that given the choice, people are often much more likely to speak of the darker side of personal information tradeoffs than they are to reference the benefits. As one focus group participant put it: “I think the [chances for achieving privacy] are getting more hopeless as technology advances.”

One of the most unsettling aspects of privacy issues to many of the focus group participants is how hard they feel it is to get information about what is collected and uncertainty about who is collecting the data. A sampling of those views:

“In my opinion, there is a woeful lack of disclosure on how personal information is used by companies. If you read some of the terms of service, you are essentially giving the company the right to do almost anything with your personal information.”

“I have no idea how I’d investigate what info is collected about me in places like Google and Facebook, other than the information I’ve provided them, such as my profile info.”

Asked whether changes in the basic state of privacy were a “huge harm” to society or something more like an “annoyance that could be accommodated,” people’s answers ranged widely:

“It feels hopeless. Information retrieval is a way of life, but it inhibits human interaction.”

“For me it’s not so much ‘hopeless,’ as it is ‘resigned.’”

“It’s an annoyance, but inevitable.”

“I don’t feel hopeless. I just feel that I need to remain vigilant.”

“I don’t think things are hopeless, some genius will figure out how to get around all this.”

“Does any annoyance ever stop there? There are always those that want to capitalize on knowledge of others and will stretch that envelope to collect more and more data. If not more than an annoyance [now], it will become more than that [in the future].”

Asked what would it take to turn them into privacy activists? One focus group participant said: “If I found out that a company had been negligent in putting in reasonable controls to protect my information and then refused to help me, that would be the tipping point for me.”

When it comes to the future of privacy, most of the focus group participants were downbeat. Many cited the trend towards surveillance and data capture that to them seemed inexorable. Many also said they think younger Americans are not sensitive about personal privacy and that will shape the future. One focus group respondent spoke for many of the older members of the group in asserting: “The next generation will say ‘privacy? … What is that?” Another quickly added: “I really think that the next generation will not even understand the value of privacy. Privacy will be a thing of the past.”

Another focus group member argued that trends in technology drive changes that compromise privacy: “Information retrieval is a way of life, but it inhibits human interaction.”

Another asserted: “[The loss of privacy is] a huge harm – an impoverishment of our culture. Probably most great scientific and artistic achievements occur in privacy.”

And another gave voice to a commonly voiced theme that privacy changes are subtle and cumulative: “I think privacy will be stripped away [from us], because people are permitting it – one trade at a time. The cameras for security evolve into cameras to ensure compliance. And once those are in, the next thing is easier to get in.”