Surveys of Consumer Privacy Poor Foundation for Policy

Washington, DC, May 8, 2001— Competitive Enterprise Institute scholar Solveig Singleton and editor James Harper today released a new study on consumer privacy surveys containing startling conclusions about what consumers really want. The study, With a Grain of Salt: What Consumer Privacy Surveys Don’t Tell Us, shows that one of the most frequently used kinds of evidence in the debate over privacy regulations – the consumer survey – is at best a flawed tool for policy making.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


“Consumer privacy surveys tell us little or nothing about the right thing to do about privacy. There are few issues where polling and demagoguery threaten to dominate the debate in Congress to the extent it does in federal privacy policy,” said CEI senior policy analyst Solveig Singleton. “Privacy surveys have generally prompted, pushed, or pulled respondents to consider ‘privacy’ as a generic issue with a generic solution.”


The advance release of the study coincides with today’s House Committee on Commerce hearing on privacy, “Opinion Surveys: What Consumers Have to Say About Information Privacy,” being held before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection.


Ms. Singleton and Mr. Harper found that with a subject as difficult to define as privacy, survey questions are likely to distort or manipulate answers. Because of difficulties with definition, many different concepts are grouped together under the heading of “privacy,” including security, identity fraud, spam, and other crimes and inconveniences. Also, surveys do not reveal any hard data about the real costs and benefits of information-sharing itself, or of the laws proposed to govern it.


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