The false trade-offs of personal data protection

The false trade-offs of personal data protection
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A recent survey from the Center for Data Innovation purportedly shows that Americans’ strong support for reducing the amount of personal information that is collected about them online drops significantly when they’re asked to consider certain trade-offs.

We’ve seen these claims before, and it’s no coincidence that they’re being put forward as members of Congress, spurred by the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, reports about Google’s invasive location-tracking and other privacy outrages, are becoming increasingly interested in enacting data protection legislation.

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But the trade-offs that were presented to the survey respondents were false. For instance, they were asked if they wanted online services such as Facebook and Google to collect less data about them if it means seeing more ads than before.

Naturally, many said no — who wants to see more ads? There is no reason to assume, however, that using people’s personal information to try to figure out more precisely what they’re interested in would result in fewer ads.

Indeed, if companies believe that this would improve their ability to manipulate people into accepting their offers, it could just as easily result in more ads, not fewer.

I don’t buy the premise that less data collection means seeing fewer ads that are useful to people, either. Contextual advertising, in which ads are delivered to individuals based on what they’re looking at online at the moment, can be effective and is far less privacy-invasive than advertising that relies on collecting information about their activities over time, online and offline and across devices and platforms, in order to profile them.

I suppose that if it was possible for advertisers to implant devices in people’s brains to read their thoughts, they’d be able to target ads more precisely. But as a matter of public policy we need to draw the line.

Advertisers will adapt to the parameters that are set for them, as they are doing in Europe in the advent of the General Data Protection Regulation that took effect last year. If they’re smart, they will figure out how to promote their products and services without unduly invading people’s privacy and bombarding them with useless ads.

It’s important to note that the survey shows that people care more about their privacy than they do about the usefulness of ads — nearly three-quarters strongly or somewhat agreed that they’d like online services such as Google and Facebook to collect less of their data even if it resulted in seeing less-useful ads.

The highest level of disagreement the survey found was when respondents were asked if they’d want less personal information collected if it means that they’d have to pay a monthly subscription fee, presumably for things they are getting for free now.

Again, naturally many said no — who doesn’t like getting something for nothing? But there is no free lunch. People are paying with their personal information, which can be used and shared in the United States with very few constraints, in ways that are impossible for them to assess, let alone compare in terms of cost versus benefit.

Because of the lack of constraints, a whole industry of commercial surveillance has developed that relies on offering “free” stuff to Americans to collect their data. Why should they have to make the choice between using great products and services and sacrificing their privacy?

Let’s place the choice on industry, where it belongs. If a company wants to offer individuals something for free, it can make money from soliciting them to buy other products or to pay for enhanced services (as many free apps do) and from advertising to them in a privacy-respectful way on behalf of business partners.

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As professor Joe Turow and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania noted in their survey report, "The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation," most Americans don’t think that trading their data for discounts is “a square deal.”

Rather, they do so because they’re resigned to it, even though they’re not happy about it. They feel powerless to keep their personal information private, and they are. It’s not realistic or fair to tell people that if they want to protect their privacy they shouldn’t use social media, search engines or cell phones.

Nor should they have to refrain from taking advantage of internet-connected devices that promise convenience and safety if they want to avoid being surveilled.

Our organization has joined with other consumer, civil rights and privacy groups to call for a legislative framework that would give Americans the right to expect that their personal information will be treated justly and fairly. They shouldn’t be forced to make false choices to protect it.     

Susan Grant is the director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of non-profit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest.