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Privacy Perspectives | Pew demonstrates organizations need privacy pros more than ever Related reading: Why the Latest Pew Report Is Important for Privacy Engineers

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Though privacy pros work in drastically different industries, with vastly different constituencies and information collection practices, a common thread that intersects the profession is that privacy is contextual. Defining privacy and what constitutes personally identifiable information is constantly being discussed and debated — even today at the FTC's PrivacyCon event. Businesses trying to push the envelope with new innovations are often nudging the privacy line to new, sometimes controversial and uncomfortable places. Even the cold, hard, scientific calculations of de-identification are hotly debated among scholars, privacy pros, and privacy activists.

All this goes to say that privacy is protean, squishy, and relative. Ultimately, this makes the work of the privacy pro all the more important because sometimes there’s no obvious answer when a product manager walks up and says, "Is this okay?" It’s the privacy pro who helps guide the organization toward finding a suitable answer for both their customers and their business.

That’s why the latest Pew Research Center report on consumer privacy and information sharing is a fascinating look into the decision-making process of U.S.-based consumers. In a nutshell, what makes Americans decide to share their personal information? Well, the answer is: “It depends.”

Conducted by Lee Rainie and Maeve Duggan, Pew’s latest report surveyed 461 U.S. adults and nine focus groups of 80 individuals, finding that there are various circumstances under which consumers will share data or permit surveillance in exchange for something of perceived value.

Pew examined six different scenarios to unearth this decision-making process, including the presence of office surveillance cameras, the sharing of health information, retail loyalty cards, obtaining auto insurance, and using free social media and smart thermostats. Many of the respondents expressed concern about the security of the information they decide to share and express anger about the flood of advertisements, calls, and emails they receive after sharing their data.

The survey did not find any consistent demographic patterns in respondents’ answers, however. Views could vary depending on age, income, education, but other times they did not. Pew also did not find any “statistically meaningful differences in women’s and men’s answers" to any of the six scenarios.

There were, however, some trends worth noting.

When considering trading their personal information for something of perceived value, respondents said that often the initial bargain might be worthwhile, but follow-up messaging and advertising from companies that collect the data was “annoying and unwanted.” Consumers also worry about data security, hacking, and the protection of their data. One of the most precious data points for consumers is their location. As Pew points out, “Some of the most strongly negative reactions came in response to scenarios involving the sharing of personal location data.” Respondents also found profiling to be creepy, bringing up words such as “Big Brother.” Finally, consumers are suspicious of the secondary use of their data.

On the other hand, consumers do like “free.” No-cost services go a long way in helping consumers to share their data. Consumers are also aware that sharing personal data can help “lubricate commercial and social interactions.” Loyalty cards, for example, are often found to be an acceptable scenario for such a tradeoff. Employees were also understanding of workplace surveillance, as long as their surveillance focused on public places and storage areas, as opposed to their personal space.

More specifically, 54 percent of respondents were okay with workplace surveillance cameras – even ones using facial recognition – to help identify thieves. Fifty-two percent said they were willing to share personal data with their doctor to help them manage their own personal medical records as long as it was done so on a secure site.

Loyalty cards garnered 47-percent support, but since the scenario included the selling of shared data with third parties, those who found it unacceptable went up to 32 percent – significantly higher than the previous two scenarios. Only 37 percent were okay with getting auto insurance discounts for allowing their driving habits to be tracked. A full 45-percent majority found it unacceptable. One of the biggest concerns for respondents? Yep, their location.

A majority – at 51 percent – also found it unacceptable to share their personal data on a free social network if their data was used to target advertising. Similarly, a whopping 55 percent said they were uncomfortable sharing their data when using an inexpensive smart thermostat that would not only save money on home heating, but also would know the basic activities of those individuals in the home. Once again, consumers were uncomfortable with sharing their location-based activities.

All of this demonstrates the difficulty in quantifying consumer expectations of privacy and the significant role privacy pros must play within their organization to ensure their customers are not “creeped out” or scared away. Looking at the PrivacyCon papers, I think you'll find more information along these lines when our coverage comes out tomorrow.

It’s notable that consumers are concerned about the security of their data, with whom it’s shared, and the spam and communications that come back to them after a transaction. It’s also notable how concerned consumers are with sharing the location of their data. Privacy pros should pay attention to this as policies and products are developed.

It’s clear, too, that consumers are really beginning to understand the power and vulnerability of their personal data. It’s also clear that the privacy decisions Americans make are context-dependent. The Pew report points out that, on the whole, consumers are “uncertain, resigned and annoyed – or worse” about the value in trading off their personal information.

Though it won’t always be easy, privacy pros have an important role to play here in helping consumers understand how their data is being used, shared, and protected so as not to trigger negative reactions. It's hard to think of any result that argues more for a privacy pro's value to an organization. 

Top image: Screenshot of Pew Research Center report.

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