There’s a paradox at the heart of today’s conversation around privacy and data collection, says Lee Rainie, director, of the Pew Research Center’s Internet, Science and Technology Project. “Americans say they care a lot about privacy,” he explained. “But they act like they don’t.”
Speaking at the Book Industry Study Group's Making Information Pay seminar, held Thursday in New York, Rainie detailed the most recent survey results from an ongoing effort by Pew to assess American attitudes toward privacy in the digital age. He told attendees that privacy expectations are “a deeply American thing.” Yet, most Americans readily share their private information, and 91% of those surveyed agreed that consumers today have lost the ability to control their personal data.
“There is a palpable sense that the dynamic of privacy has changed from one in which you are private by default, to one in which you are public by default, and private by effort,” Rainie said, echoing the words of researcher and author Danah Boyd.
Pew began actively surveying Americans attitudes toward privacy following the bombshell revelations of domestic data collection by the NSA, unveiled by Edward Snowden in 2013, which was followed shortly thereafter by a massive data breach at retailer Target. While the survey shows that Americans are understandably wary about privacy and data collection, how we approach privacy in our day-to-day lives, Rainie said, is fairly complex.
“People don't have a deeply nuanced sense of ‘I worry about the NSA for this stuff, and I worry about Target, or hackers, for this stuff.’ It’s just, sort of, ‘Wow, it's out of control,’” Rainie explained. “And, it starts with this basic thought that [personal data] are being captured in ways that I don't know about, in ways that I can't understand, by people and organizations that I don't know about. It takes an enormous amount of effort to stay on top of it all, and to really know what's going on.”
Yet, however “freaked out” people may be about privacy threats and data capture overall, American attitudes are very “context specific.” For example, well over 90% of Americans surveyed said they would not want their social security number shared. But most said that information about their purchasing habits or what media they enjoy is not terribly sensitive.
So what does the evolving world of privacy and data collection mean for the book business in the digital age?
“One of the implications for the book business is that you guys are in the boat with everyone else, to some degree—the Snowden revelations, the Target data breach,” Rainie said. But the good news, he added, is that publishers (as well as booksellers and libraries) are trusted institutions, perceived to be “on the side of the Angels.”
That’s because, for many, “books are synonymous with solitude, and in this crazy, hectic world that has become an ever more precious attribute,” he explained. And in an age of “information abundance” people value services that can help them find things that matter to them. “[People] want to be surprised, and delighted,” he noted. “They are annoyed when they have to wade through so much information to get what they want.”
That’s something that can be leveraged by the book industry, Rainie said. “In a way, sort of saying that the only reason we are maybe capturing data on you is so we can help you find a little peace in life, that's probably not a bad syllogism for you guys to go through.”
But be warned: the survey also showed that those who are more engaged with privacy issues in the news—whether Snowden, Target, the Sony studio hack, Chinese hacking into U.S. government computers, or the Ashley Madison hack—are more wary of what's at stake. “There is definitely a knowledge piece to this,” Rainie said. “People who know more are freaked out more, and in a way, that’s a really big warning sign for [publishers], because the kind of people who buy books are probably more in tune with the news.”
The final takeaway for publishers: “Just be careful,” Rainie said. He also suggested that publishers even consider adopting more stringent and transparent privacy policies than other media companies. "People would hope for that from you.”
As for how the privacy and data collection debates will unfold in the U.S., Rainie said Pew canvassed a number of experts—including technologists and scholars, “people who are sort of building the Internet,” about their view of future. Their overwhelming sense, he said, was that privacy is becoming something of a commodity.
“Privacy is no longer a condition of American life,” Rainie suggested, “and is likely in the future to be something that only the rich will be able to purchase.”