Gen Z College Students Weigh-in on Personal Data Collection — Privacy Advocates Should Worry

Some GenZers don’t mind giving up their personal data in exchange for the convenience of targeted ads and discounts; others are uneasy, but all are resigned to the inevitability of it. However, the language they use to describe their acquiescence to data collection should be troubling to privacy advocates.

Some GenZers don’t mind giving up their personal data in exchange for the convenience of targeted ads and discounts; others are uneasy, but all are resigned to the inevitability of it. However, the language they use to describe their acquiescence to data collection should be troubling to privacy advocates.

After reading “Sharing Data for Deals? More Like Watching It Go With a Sigh” (NYTimes 12/24/18), some students in the Consumer Analysis college course I teach expressed discomfort, even outrage at the extent of the data collected via their social media posts, geo-tracking on their mobile phones, shopper loyalty program and smart home devices. But they all accepted their conscious and unconscious data surrender as a fact of life.

The article reports on the study of 1,500 consumers by Professor Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania who found that “people are uncomfortable with surveillance, but they don’t know what to do.” One student summed up our mass acquiescence, saying:

“I do not feel it is ethical for companies to distribute our activities to others. Despite my feelings on the situation, it will continue — so I must accept the reality of the situation,” said one.

Some don’t really mind having their personal data exploited for marketing purposes. While most of my students agreed that marketers gain the most from the exchange of data for convenience, one student embraced the inevitable data surrender as being more beneficial to consumers, because they can choose whether or not to act on the marketers’ targeted messages:

“… I feel as though consumers gain the most from this value exchange. Marketers can do pretty much whatever they want with the information that they collect, but they do not really ‘gain’ from this exchange, until people actually purchase their products, and a lot of effort is required to get them to do so. We are all educated consumers, so it is our responsibility to respond to these marketing attempts wisely. No one is forcing anyone to make a purchase they don’t want to, so even if this exchange allows marketers to play with people’s vulnerabilities, it is ultimately consumers’ choice on whether or not they want to buy something.”

The rationalization that the consumer is still in charge is a good argument for those opposed to limits on involuntary data collection. But more troubling is the belief that there is no potential for bad actors to exploit the personal data that’s collected. One student writes:

“Personally, I feel as if consumers benefit more from this exchange of data. Even though their information is constantly being monitored and collected, it is not being used to hurt them. Marketers are using the information to make people’s lives easier so that they spend more money on their products. There is no going backwards with technology, only forward. So, consumers need to be able to trust that marketers are using their information only to help them. While marketers are benefitting a lot from the money they are making, consumers lives are getting better and easier, day by day.”

Here’s another red flag for privacy advocates from a student who’s OK with smart devices collecting information from private conversations, but concerned only about how that information is stored:

“Articles from The New York Times, ‘Home Items are Getting Smarter and Creepier, Like It or Not’ (01/07/19), cited an example of these devices recording more information than we thought. The author stated that ‘background conversations may be stored with the voice recordings and resurface with hacking or as part of lawsuits or investigations,’ (The Associated Press). This finding shows that our speech is kept indefinitely, and the information is accessible upon force or request from a higher power. I believe that these smart devices should only keep the information that was processed through the user’s speech instead of the actual voice recording itself.”

But there’s hope for those who want more transparent privacy policies. Reacting to “How Smart TVs in Millions of Homes Track More Than What’s on Tonight” (NYTimes 07/05/18), one student wrote:

“Marketers are gaining money and information through various means and have the ability to do so without risk because consumers are not going to read 6,000-word privacy policies just to be able to work a television.”