According to a new survey, somewhere along the line (recently, we presume) Americans lost hope of data privacy.
This is bad. Not just bad. Unless something changes in the public psyche this could be the canary in the coal mine which spells doom for what we’ve all called for generations the American Experience of an open and free democracy and, even, marketplace.
The survey – by the esteemed Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania (Ben Franklin‘s university) – reports, among other dismal findings, “a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up (personal) data” in exchange for online shopping advantages and other commercial benefits.
Resigned to giving up personal data. Other recent studies have reached similar findings.
“The findings also suggest, in contrast to other academics’ claims, that Americans’ willingness to provide personal information to marketers cannot be explained by the public’s poor knowledge of the ins and outs of digital commerce,” explain the study’s authors. “In fact, people who know more about ways marketers can use their personal information are more likely rather than less likely to accept discounts in exchange for data when presented with a real-life scenario.”
We know our personal data is being used to exploit us – and we accept that. And it’s not like we don’t care, the survey suggests, we do. We just accept the intrusion, the invasive nature of today’s marketplace (let alone government surveillance) and move on.
The survey’s findings suggest Americans really don’t like giving up privacy but, what the hell:
- 91% disagree (77% of them strongly) that “If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.”
- 71% disagree (53% of them strongly) that “It’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.”
- 55% disagree (38% of them strongly) that “It’s okay if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.”
“Further analysis of these responses indicate only a very small percentage of Americans agree with the overall concept of tradeoffs. In fact, only about 4% agree or agree strongly with all three propositions,” pen the study’s authors. “If we use a broader definition of a belief in tradeoffs— the average value of all three statements—even then only 21% of the respondents accept the idea.
“Yet, when we present a real-life tradeoff case—asking Americans whether they would take discounts in exchange for allowing their supermarket to collect information about their grocery purchases —43%, or more than twice as many as in the broader definition of tradeoff supporters, say yes to tradeoffs.”
Despite the dismal results of the survey, the study insists all is not lost and the authors – Penn professors Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper – suggest the American public could be turned around on the whole issue of data privacy.
“We need initiatives that will give members of the public the right and ability to learn what companies know about them, how they profile them, and what data lead to what personalized offers,” they suggest. “We also need to get people excited about using that right and ability.”
- Public interest organizations as well as government agencies should develop clear definitions of transparency that reflect concerns identified in this survey and elsewhere. They should then systematically call out companies regarding how well or badly they are doing based on these values. When activists, journalists, and government officials name, praise, and shame firms that don’t abide by the transparency norms, they can alert the public to stay away from bad actors and possibly force those actors to change their behaviors.
- We also suggest an initiative to dissect and report on the implications of privacy policies. Activists, journalists and government officials—perhaps aided by crowdsourcing initiatives—should take on the role of interpreting these legally-binding documents for the public. The focus should not primarily be on whether or not websites abide by their privacy policies. Instead, privacy-policy interpreters can be most helpful by uncovering for their publics how companies say they collect and use their data, and what the implications might be for the individual and society. When this information is available in a digestible form, it may spur informed naming, praising, and shaming. It may well also lead firms to change behaviors citizens find disagreeable.
- These considerations along with our overall survey findings suggest a need to advocate for the right to know one’s profile and how it is used. As long as the algorithms companies implement to analyze and predict the future behaviors of individuals are hidden from public view, the potential for unwanted marketer exploitation of individuals’ data remains high. We therefore ought to consider it an individual’s right to access the profiles and scores companies use to create every personalized message and discount the individual receives. Companies will push back that giving out this information will expose trade secrets. We argue there are ways to carry this out while keeping their trade secrets intact.