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Americans want privacy at home, but are more open to surveillance at work

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Americans are often willing to give up some personal data in exchange for a free service or perceived benefit. It’s the type of data, and where it’s being shared, that’s typically the determining factor, a new Pew Research Center study found. American adults were most likely to be okay with their privacy being infringed on where they work, and were more open to sharing health data than other kinds of information.

Pew gave 461 participants six scenarios and asked if the privacy tradeoff was worth the returned reward. For instance, one posed situation was that a participant’s office had gone through a spate of robberies. In turn, the employer was going to install high-resolution security cameras equipped with facial recognition technology in order to identify the thieves. The footage would be retained for as long as the company wanted and could be used to measure employees’ attendance and performance. Fifty-four percent of respondents said the added security was an acceptable tradeoff for some surveillance; 24 percent said it wasn’t; 21 percent said it depends, and the remaining 1 percent refused to answer. People also found it acceptable to share health records with a website in exchange for being able to access them online and schedule appointments. Fifty-two percent of participants were okay with this, and 26 percent were not.

54 percent said added security was an acceptable tradeoff for surveillance

Although the majority of participants said they found office surveillance acceptable, they felt the opposite about their homes. A posed scenario said an inexpensive smart thermostat could learn about participants’ temperature zones and movements around their homes in order to save money on their energy bills. However, data about the basic activities they do in their homes and when they move from room to room would be shared with the thermostat makers. Only 27 percent of people found this tradeoff acceptable; 55 percent did not. In this case, people ages 50 and older were most likely to find it an unacceptable tradeoff.

Participants also weren’t comfortable sharing data on social media sites to receive more targeted advertisements, even when the return was reconnecting with old friends. In that scenario, 33 percent found the exchange acceptable, and 51 percent did not. There was a slight age connection in their responses. Roughly 40 percent of those under age 50 found the deal acceptable, whereas only 24 percent of people age 50 and above did.

Data about the basic activities they do in their homes would be collected

Pew didn’t always find explicit connections between age and the situations in which people were comfortable sharing data, including for the office scenario. There were 230 participants between the ages of 18 and 49, and 231 participants were age 50 or older. The group was comprised of 235 men and 226 women.

Overall, the researchers said it comes down to the "conditions of the deal" and the circumstances of participants' lives that make them willing to share data. The type of company collecting the data, as well as how trustworthy it seems also plays a role. Even still, there are some privacy absolutists. Seventeen percent of participants said they would not find any of the listed scenarios acceptable. Four percent of people would accept all of them. In the real world, however, companies don't always make finding details about their data collection easy, and often times, it's an all-in or all-out deal. Is Facebook, or Snapchat, or Twitter, worth some privacy infringement? Most Americans seem to be saying yes, even though this study suggests differently.