March 23, 2012, 3:29 PM — When asked for surveys, most people say they fear identity theft, worry about web services their privacy for profit and swear they'd pay more for products or services from vendors who protect their privacy rather than exploiting it.
Very few behave as if they really mean it, however, according to a new study on the economics of privacy.
When given a choice, most people choose to buy from vendors who do not demand that they hand over phone numbers, email addresses or other personal information to complete the purchase, according to Study on Monetising Privacy , which is billed by its sponsors as the largest experimental study examining the behavior of consumers in realistic online buying situations.
The study was sponsored by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), a European Union government agency charged with investigating digital security and privacy on both individuals and businesses in the EU.
In separate experiments, researchers from Cambridge University and German Institute of Research in Berlin sent 443 student volunteers to two web sites selling tickets at the same price to the same movie and asked for the same list of basic personal information (name, email address, date of birth).
When one site required customers to enter a cell-phone number, 83 percent of the students bought from the other site.
When the price at that site rose by half a euro (66 U.S. cents) but stayed the same at the privacy-unfriendly site, only 31 percent were willing to pay extra rather than buy from the other site and disclose their cell-phone number.
The researchers' conclusion was not the obvious – that a cell phone number is worth 66 cents.
Instead they concluded that consumers do value privacy in much the same way they value money. The majority, sometimes a substantial majority, value cash much more highly than they value individual bits of personal information.
The result was similar when the equation changed to focus on the threat that participants would be the victims of additional email advertising after their initial purchase.