They’re OK with sharing personal information, but will weigh each situation’s risks against the return, a new Pew Research Center report says.

Suppose your high school class reunion committee is using a social media platform to streamline communication among classmates, but requires you to complete a profile using your name and photo. Your activity on the site would be used by the provider to deliver ads it deems appealing to you based on the profile. Is that an acceptable trade-off?

More than half (51%) of a survey group asked to consider sharing personal information in that situation said no. 33% said it would be acceptable and 15% said it depends on the circumstances.

This scenario is one of six considered by consumers in a study by the Pew Research Center to gauge U.S. consumers’ willingness to share personal data. While none of the situations in the study explicitly target retail, there are privacy implications about how consumers feel regarding how merchants gather and protect their personal data. Each scenario involved sharing some level of personal data in exchange for using a product or service. Participants were then asked whether the bargain they were offered in return for sharing that information was acceptable, not acceptable or if “it depends” on the context of the choice. Upon making their selection, they were asked to describe in their own words what factors contributed to making their selection.

The report, titled “Privacy and Sharing,” is based on a survey of 461 U.S. adults and nine online focus groups with 80 participants by the Pew Research Center, a not-for-profit research group that studies consumer behavior and the Internet. It was conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 16, 2015.

Researchers concluded: “Americans’ 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.”


In the class reunion example, it’s no surprise that survey participants’ age drove the outcome. About 40% of those under age 50 say this deal would be acceptable, compared with only 24% of those age 50 and above. Comments from respondents included the following:

  • “I would only want to see advertising in that website, not in my personal email.”
  • “Although I understand this scenario is already standard practice, it uses information collected about me in a manner not for my benefit, without my consent. It would affect how I use the reunion site or whether I even join the site at all.”

“These findings show how people’s decisions are often context-specific and contingent,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center and author of the new report. “Most are likely to consider options on a case-by-case basis, rather than apply hard-and-fast privacy rules.”

In another scenario, survey participants were told anew technology company created an inexpensive home thermostat sensor that would “learn” about their temperature zone and movements around the house, potentially reducing energy costs. The device is programmable remotely in return for sharing data about some of the basic activities that take place in their home, such as when people are there and when they move from room to room.

The results: 27% would find this tradeoff acceptable, 55% would find it not acceptable and 17% say it depends on the circumstances. Age again was a determining factor in responses, with 69% of respondents age 50 and older the most likely to say it’s not acceptable, compared with 48% of those under age 50 finding it so.

Comments included:

  • “I would be concerned that the data could be used to find out when nobody was home–I don’t want anyone tracking what I do in my home.”
  • “I control my thermostat. Nobody else needs to have any sort of control over how I cool/warm my house.”

The other scenarios addressed office surveillance cameras, online health information, consumer loyalty cards and profiling, and auto insurance discounts and monitoring.