Is Online Privacy Over? USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future Finds Millennials Have Different Take on Sharing Personal Data

By Peter Bernstein April 22, 2013

Pop icon, Cher, had a hit song called “If I Could Turn Back Time” in 1989. Unfortunately, we cannot. In fact, a new survey by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future and Bovitz, Inc. shows significant differences in the way Millennials think, compared to older users of the Internet, when it comes to online privacy, access to personal data and how they share information with businesses online.

What they found was that despite misgivings about Trust by older segments of the U.S. population, there is what they’re calling a "Millennial Rift." It is characterized by significant differences in behavior and attitudes among Millennials (ages 18-34) compared to other users. "Online privacy is dead – Millennials understand that, while older users have not adapted," said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. "Millennials recognize that giving up some of their privacy online can provide benefits to them. This demonstrates a major shift in online behavior -- there's no going back."

The survey says!

The findings are good news to advertisers, and certainly are illuminating. 

The survey found that compared to Internet users aged 35 and older, larger percentages of Millennials report:

  • More enthusiasm about sharing their personal information with online businesses
  • Greater receptivity to targeted advertising when their personal information is involved
  • More willingness to trade personal information in exchange for relevant advertising
  • Greater likelihood that they allow access to their personal data or information on their Web behavior - as long as they receive concrete benefits in return

In addition, it turns out that a large percentage of Millennials - and an even larger percentage of users age 35 and older - are uncomfortable with others having access to their personal data online or information about their web behavior. And, when asked about the statement, "No one should ever be allowed to have access to my personal data or Web behavior," 70 percent of Millennials agreed, compared with 77 percent of users 35 and older.

In spite of those views, however, significant percentages of Millennials compared to those aged 35 and older are willing to give up some of that privacy - if they benefit from it.

  • When asked if they would share their location with companies in order to receive coupons or deals for nearby businesses, 56 percent of Millennials agreed, compared to 42 percent of users 35 and older.  
  • When asked if they would share information with companies "as long as I get something in return," 51 percent of Millennials agreed, compared to 40 percent of those aged 35 and older.

"Millennials think differently when it comes to online privacy," said Elaine B. Coleman, managing director of media and emerging technologies for Bovitz. "It's not that they don't care about it – rather they perceive social media as an exchange or an economy of ideas, where sharing involves participating in smart ways.”"Millennials say, 'I'll give up some personal information if I get something in return,'" said Coleman. "For older users, sharing is a function of trust -- 'the more I trust, the more I am willing to share.'"

Other interesting findings from the annual survey showed that Millennials are…

  • Regularly in contact with many more people through social networking than users over 35 — 18, compared to only five for users over age 35.
  • More frequent users of social networking sites than older users; almost half of Millennials (48 percent) visit social networking websites several times a day, compared to only 20 percent of users age 35 and older.

At the risk of sounding like a grump over 35 (well over, to be precise), the declaration by the authors that online privacy is dead while making for a great headline is probably a bit of hyperbole. What the survey did not ask, for example, is “Would your attitudes about sharing change if you were a victim of identity theft?” It also did not inquire how Millennials would feel if their personal data were used by a company to make billions of dollars and they got nothing in return. 

Plus, it is not clear what the barter rate is likely to be on calibrating the value of privacy versus loyalty. 

It also might be dangerous to draw conclusions based on what U.S. feel and extrapolate them to the rest of the world. The approach to privacy in the U.S. is much less restrictive than the rest of the world, for a variety of political and cultural reasons.  

As those who follow me know, I happen to share the Millennial desire to be compensated for providing people my personal information. However, my suspicion is I have a stronger view on what reasonable compensation would look like; a piece of every transaction where my information was given to a third party is my personal table stakes on this one. 

I guess that makes me young at heart. Maybe this is not about turning back time, but about playing it forward.




Edited by Braden Becker
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