Public Attitudes about the Privacy of Information

March 2000

[Excerpted from Report of the "New York Senate Majority Task Force on the Invasion of Privacy," pages 12-13 March 2000,]

I've never looked through a keyhole without finding someone was looking back.
--Judy Garland (1967) US actress, singer

Privacy is such a personal issue that peoples' attitudes about it differ greatly. The willingness to provide access to personal information is often contingent on the reward for doing so. Such rewards often take the form of additional savings, coupons, and rebates. Since personal information has value, if you choose to withhold it, you may deny yourself certain advantages.7 Generally, people are willing to provide some personal information to the party they are 'doing business' with-it is the release of that information to third parties that greatly concerns them. Marketers contend that people enjoy receiving unsolicited information since it makes them more aware of products and services that are available to them. However, results from numerous recent national polls have concluded that people want to retain some control over who knows what about them. One of the most compelling of the polls on privacy came from a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll in the Fall of 1999. Americans were asked what they feared most in the coming century. Answers included terrorism, global warming, overpopulation and numerous other horrible things. The answer that came in highest (29% of all respondents) was the loss of privacy--no other topic rose above 23%.8

1996 DIRECT Poll 9

A survey conducted in 1996 for a prominent direct marketing magazine revealed that:

83% of survey participants said there should be a law requiring an 'opt-in' procedure to be included on mailing lists; 78% are in favor of such a law even if it means they would not receive new mailings; 58% want to outlaw altogether the collection of Social Security numbers; and 58% said they do not even look at their direct mail before throwing it away.

1997 Money Magazine Poll 10

74% of the public are somewhat or very concerned about threats to their privacy; 29% have experienced a serious invasion of their financial or medical information; and 65% are more worried about privacy invasion than they were 5 years ago.

Public Agenda Online Poll 11

How concerned are you about the theft of your personal identity numbers, such as Social Security, cell phone, phone card, or bank account numbers? 57% very concerned; 29% somewhat concerned; 10% not too concerned; 3% not concerned; 1% don't know.

Do concerns about the security of these numbers ever stop you from making purchases over the phone or via the Internet?

66% yes; 30% no; 4% don't know.

1999 IBM Consumer Privacy Survey 12

A December 1999 international privacy survey by IBM found that:

  • 94% of consumer respondents in the United States,
  • 78% in the United Kingdom, and
  • 72% in Germany said they think personal information is vulnerable to misuse; and
  • 78% of American consumer respondents,
  • 58% of British consumers, and
  • 52% of German consumers claim they have refused to provide requested data to a business because they believe it is too personal.

1998 AARP Survey 13

AARP's Public Policy Institute sponsored a national telephone survey of AARP members to measure their awareness of privacy attitudes and ascertain their attitudes toward current practices of selling and sharing customer information. Some major findings from the survey include the following:

A majority of respondents believed that businesses are allowed to gather personal information about consumers without their permission, including whether they pay their bills on time (82%); the long distance carrier they use (76%); their Social Security numbers (68%); their medical histories (60%); and the amount of money in their bank accounts (55%);

  • 78% of the respondents disagreed with the following statement: 'current federal and state laws are strong enough to protect your personal privacy from businesses that collect information about consumers';
  • 87% of respondents said it would bother them if personal information were sold by businesses, government agencies or Web sites to other businesses;
  • 81% of respondents opposed the internal sharing of customers' personal and financial information by corporate affiliates; and
  • 42% of respondents indicated they "didn't know" who they would turn to for assistance if a company was inappropriately sharing or selling their personal information.

7 Moynihan, Michael. The Searchable Soul. Harper's magazine. January 2000.

8 Swire, Peter. U.S. Chief Counsel for privacy, Office of Management and Budget. Testimony before the United States Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission, Public Workshop on Online Profiling. November 8, 1999.

9 Direct. June, 1996.

10 Southern Maryland Online. 1999.

11 CBS NEWS, 1998.

12 Lukenbill, Grant. Consumers Most Worried About Privacy, Polls Find. DM News. December 29, 1999.

13 MaryAlice O'Brien, State Legislative Chair, American Association of Retired Persons. Testimony Before the New York State Senate Majority Task Force on the Invasion of Privacy. Albany, New York. April 15, 1999.