But thermostats that collect data on you aren’t a hypothetical. In fact, they’re quickly becoming the standard: By 2017, market research firm Parks Associates estimates more than half of the thermostats sold in the United States will be “smart.” And one of the biggest players in the market is Nest, which is offered by Google parent-company Alphabet that makes much of its revenue by tracking our behavior and selling us targeted ads.
So why the disconnect between the rise of smart thermostats and Americans’ apparent distrust of the data that makes them work better? Part of the answer may be that consumers don’t fully understand what they’re giving up when they pick up that shiny new device.
"Modern life is really a life of almost ceaseless transactions like this," said Lee Rainie, the lead author of the report. These little tradeoffs can happen with almost every click you make online, when you use your smartphone, or even when you get on a bus.
Often, the benefits to giving up personal information are obvious: Cheaper energy bills or a convenient way to swipe into a transit system. The potential pitfalls can be more abstract. For example, it's hard to tell what the consequences could be down the road if a company is tracking your web browsing today.
Still, consumers appear both aware and wary of the way their data may someday be used against them. “There's a very strong sense that people don't know the details of [these deals] and that makes them unnerved," Rainie said.
In its latest report, Pew laid out a handful of different situations to help understand how people judge these trade-offs. Their answers suggest that Americans do not view the tracking of personal information as an all-or-nothing proposal.
Most respondents had little appetite for car insurance companies offering a discount to drivers who agreed to let the insurer track their precise speed and location. Forty-five percent of those surveyed found that deal unacceptable, versus 37 percent who thought it was fine.
Just like the smart thermostats, this is something that’s already happening: Firms such as Progressive and Liberty Mutual have programs that ask people to give up detailed information about their driving habits in exchange for a discount.
Focus group responses received by Pew indicate that the insurance and thermostat scenarios hit respondents close to home.
“They don't like the idea of places that used to seem very private, like their homes or their cars, being monitored,” he said. And because these are practices already commonplace, respondents may have already had to think through the implications.
Indeed, a recent Accenture study of 28,000 consumers in 28 countries found that security and privacy concerns are among the top reasons why people did not buy smart home and wearable products. Nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, cited this concern.
And many don’t trust that companies can protect the information they gather. Of those who would buy smart devices, nearly a quarter of people told Accenture that concerns about security breaches delayed their plans to do so. Eighteen percent said this worry prompted them to stop using smart devices altogether.
“When it comes to privacy and security issues, mainstream awareness has increased dramatically over the past 12-18 months,” said John Curran, global managing director at Accenture. “People are more generally aware that it’s something they should be thinking about.”
On the other hand, Pew posed a scenario that elicited a different response. The research group asked, if someone was stealing personal belongings from your workplace, would it be ok if the company installed a camera system with facial recognition technology to catch the thief -- even if the company could hang onto the the footage for as long as it wanted and the feeds could also be used to track employee attendance and performance?
By a two-to-one margin, 54 percent to 24 percent, people said that arrangement was acceptable.
The focus groups suggested some respondents may have been driven by thoughts about who ultimately gets to make the final call in that scenario, not the actual privacy stakes. “There was one strain of thought that really said the workplace belongs to the boss -- so it's their domain and I don't always get to assert the control I'd like,” Rainie said.
But, he added, even among those who were upset by the “big brother” aspect of the situation, few brought up concerns about the use of facial recognition technology, which has raised serious alarm bells for some privacy experts.
While systems that rely on facial recognition technology are quietly being rolled out to do things like help retailers identify shoplifters, it’s “unlikely” people understand their full implications at this point, said Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown law school’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “Once someone has the ability to trace you by your face it erases a lot of the anonymity you have on and offline.”
Previous Pew surveys have found that very few people feel they have a lot of control over how data about them is collected or used. And in this latest report, the organization noted that focus groups were “much more likely to speak of the darker side of personal information tradeoffs” than their benefits.
“I really think that the next generation will not even understand the value of privacy,” one participant said. “Privacy will be a thing of the past.”