The Convenience-Surveillance Tradeoff

A new report shows that people in America are often willing to give up personal data in exchange for deals, but they resent doing so.

A security camera hangs from the roof of the Secretariat Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

People love free stuff. That’s the principle that helps explain the complicated series of privacy-related calculations that modern life increasingly requires.

Throughout the day, in any number of potential transactions, people are navigating the space between convenience and surveillance. A loyalty program at a supermarket means unlocking cheaper prices, but gives the store access to information about your shopping habits. Signing up for a social network requires no monetary fees, but the site tracks your online behavior so it can show you targeted advertisements. Then there’s the data collection that happens without a person’s explicit consent—surveillance cameras that record you in restaurants and on public streets, the data captured every time you swipe your credit card, the location information gathered each time you make a cellphone call.

A new Pew Research Center report found that many people in America are upset about the extent to which their personal data is being collected, but feel it is largely out of their control.

“The data is there, and it’s being used, and there isn’t a damn thing most of us can do about it, other than strongly resent it,” one respondent told Pew. “The data isn’t really the problem. It’s who gets to see and use that data that creates problems. It’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle.”

Pew surveyed 461 people in January and February of last year to better understand how Americans draw lines between privacy and convenience. Though many of those surveyed said data tracking made them uneasy—the words “creepy,” “Big Brother,” and “stalking” came up often, Pew said—people also acknowledged the allure of getting a tangible benefit in exchange for personal information.

“Free is a good price,” Pew said in its report. People like no-cost services, and are willing to forfeit some privacy in exchange for them. An individual’s data has become its own kind of currency. One survey respondent, referring to his use of Gmail, said: “To be honest, I don’t really care … I use Gmail for free, but I know that Google will capture some information in return. I’m fine with that.”

On top of that, people in America complain about eroding privacy, but have taken only “modest steps” to curb data collection. In a study last year, Pew found that some Americans responded to concerns about surveillance by changing their privacy settings on social media (17 percent); using social media less often (15 percent); avoiding certain apps (15 percent); and sometimes opting for face-to-face conversation instead of using the phone or Internet (14 percent).

And few of those who responded to Pew have taken “advanced steps” to enhance privacy: In that same survey last year, Pew found most people haven't considered switching to search engines that don't track them. About one-third of respondents said they were unaware of technologies like anonymity software and proxy servers that might help them avoid surveillance. In the United States, though, navigating the data-collection environment is particularly difficult. Unlike some other countries, the U.S. has no regulations that provide recourse for people who want to at least see—and, in some cases, modify—the detailed profiles of them that data brokers buy and sell.

One curious aspect about the Pew study was the extent to which people seem to think about privacy within the context of physical space. Data collection online or in public was perhaps annoying, but in many cases acceptable to those surveyed; data collection in the home, less so. To tease out these values, Pew offered a series of hypothetical scenarios in which a person’s activity might be tracked, then asked people whether they'd be okay with it.

The hypothetical that was most acceptable to the most people related to workplace surveillance as a way to identify thieves, improve security, and otherwise track employee attendance and performance.

“Certain physical spaces or types of information are seen as inherently less private than others,” Pew wrote. “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.’”

The scenario that was least acceptable to the most people: the idea that a smart-thermostat company might track people’s movements around their houses, from one room to the next, and offer no-cost remote programability in exchange for this data. “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,” Pew wrote.

One surprising finding: There were no consistent demographic patterns to how people responded to different scenarios. “Sometimes people’s views vary by age, household income or education, and other times they do not,” Pew said. “There are no statistically meaningful differences in women’s and men’s answers to any of these scenarios.”

In addition to the hypotheticals about workplace surveillance and home movement tracking by a smart-thermostat company, Pew outlined data-tradeoff scenarios related to social-media sites and targeted advertising; consumer loyalty-cards and shopper profiling; car-insurance discounts for drivers who agree to be monitored; and online access to medical records that would be convenient, but might pose security risks.

“It is interesting to note that 17 percent of adults say they wouldn’t take any of the deals described in the six scenarios, and 4 percent say they would accept all of the deals,” the report said. “The substantial majority indicate that at least one of these transactions is potentially acceptable to them.”

Some of the things people said they consider when they weigh privacy tradeoffs: the likelihood of getting bombarded with spammy email, the risk of hackers stealing their information, and the extent to which sharing personal data might contribute to ongoing customer profiling. Pew called concerns about data breaches “widespread,” and said people view location data as “especially precious in the age of the smartphone.”

Most people who responded to Pew seemed to view the erosion of privacy as inevitable. “It feels hopeless," one person said. "Information retrieval is a way of life, but it inhibits human interaction.”

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

“I think privacy will be stripped away, because people are permitting it—one trade at a time,” a third person told Pew. “The cameras for security evolve into cameras to ensure compliance. And once those are in, the next thing is easier to get in.”