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.’”