Americans resigned to giving up their privacy, says study

Technically Incorrect: A new study from the University of Pennsylvania finds that Americans have lost hope that their data will ever be kept private.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

No, you are not private. FW:Thinking/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I am not fond of depressing you.

So I'm going to leave it to a new study performed by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication.

Titled "The Tradeoff Fallacy" (PDF), this cheery work has so many words that can be quoted that I'll just choose a few to give you flavor.

Let's start with the subhead:"How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers And Opening Them Up to Exploitation."

That's not a good start, is it? It doesn't get any better.

How about: "Our findings...support a new explanation: a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data -- and that is why many appear to be engaged in tradeoffs."

In essence, we've given up. We see this digital world and we have accepted that its rules are the ones by which we have to play, in order to get our fix of "likes" and comments on our Instagram photos.

We tell ourselves that we give up data and get discounts in return. This survey, however, insists that we don't actually believe we're getting a fair deal.

The study explains: "Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them."

As evidence, the researchers offered that more than half of respondents said they didn't want to lose control of their information, but that it's simply too late to do anything about it.

The study accuses marketers of rather enjoying the situation. It says: "By misrepresenting the American people and championing the tradeoff argument, marketers give policymakers false justifications for allowing the collection and use of all kinds of consumer data often in ways that the public find objectionable."

Marketers, the authors say, like to present the public as informed, well able to judge what they're getting for what they're giving up.

The researchers talked to 1.506 Americans aged 18 and older. They describe their sample as "representative" and said it comprised people who use Internet or e-mail "at least occasionally."

91 percent felt that the current exchange of data for discounts wasn't fair. 71 percent disagreed with this statement: "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."

And 55 percent disagreed with this: "It's OK 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."

Of course, people say all sorts of things in surveys to make themselves sound good. The truth is often a very different thing.

Still, this study exposed just how unaware people are of what happens with their data. For example, 69 percent didn't know "that a pharmacy does not legally need a person's permission to sell information about the over-the-counter drugs that person buys."

The survey reads like the most depressing of Russian movies. The majority of people truly believe that the likes of Orbitz and Expedia are legally required to display the lowest prices available. 65 percent even believe that the mere existence of a so-called privacy policy means that their data won't be shared without their permission.

Would you like to be even more miserable? OK. The more people actually did know about the realities of online marketing, the more resigned they were to accept the inevitable and utter lack of privacy.

Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted that privacy was an issue of morality. If he read this report, he might conclude that we've exchanged our morality for piffling instant pleasures.

Clearly realizing what an enormous downer their report is, the researchers toss one more piece of flammable material to the fire: "A consequence of this broad sense of futility, perhaps even disrespect, is that over the next decades Americans might reject the legitimacy of a central institution: marketing and consumer commerce."

Conclusion: business is doomed. Well, that's something to look forward to.