Americans understand that they can’t control what’s being done with their personal data, and in some cases, they’re even willing to help put it into the hands of those who want it. But, they feel seriously conflicted about being caught in the middle.

That’s what the Pew Research Center discovered in surveys for a recently published study into the issues of privacy and information-sharing in a digital environment where nearly all of us, knowingly or inadvertently, leave wide trails for marketers, government agencies, and other data-harvesting entities to follow.

Print barely figures in the six scenarios that the study draws to illustrate the tensions that arise when people are asked to share information in return for benefits and rewards. That’s a plus for print, because it isn’t implicated in any of the potential abuses of privacy that the scenarios point to. But, since print often serves as a medium for personal information of the most sensitive kind, cautions for those who produce and distribute it can be read between the lines.

To gauge Americans’ anxieties about threats to their privacy, the study’s authors, Lee Rainie and Maeve Duggan, surveyed 461 U.S. adults and conducted nine online focus groups about 12 months ago. The participants were asked to say how willing or unwilling they would be to take part in data-gathering situations that involved:

• working under the gaze of office surveillance cameras put there to deter theft

• sharing healthcare information with a web site used by doctors to better manage patient records

• shopping with retail loyalty cards that offer discounts but track and share purchasing histories

• installing a car speed monitoring device from an insurance company in return for rate breaks

• using a free social media platform that facilitates networking but also pushes targeted ads

• installing a “smart” thermostat at home to save on energy costs

Although the respondents had significant reservations about all of these scenarios, they didn’t reject any of them out of hand. For example, nearly half (55%) called the use of smart thermostats that can track movements from room to room at home unacceptable. But, almost the same number (54%) said that for safety’s sake, they could accept working in an office where high-resolution cameras identify faces and monitor employee attendance.

How much privacy are people willing to trade for savings, convenience, or other sorts of rewards? “It depends,” say the authors. Familiarity with the entity doing the data collecting is a factor, as is what happens after the data are put to whatever use the collector had in mind. In general, they write, “consumers understand and appreciate the benefits of sharing—at least under certain circumstances.”

But, the study also identifies nagging fears about the downsides of disclosing personal information. People are said to feel frustrated by the difficulty of finding out anything about how their data are being used. Others fret that future generations will have no understanding of the meaning of “privacy” at all.

Some of the concerns have implications for printing in the here and now. 

“Creepy” is the label some respondents put on repetitious messaging based on profiles built from their personal information. Indiscriminately used, printed marketing materials with variable content that gets too personal could come in for the same kind of criticism.

One respondent said he or she wouldn’t forgive a company that had been “negligent in putting in reasonable controls to protect my information and then refused to help me.” Reminder: print is as susceptible to data loss as any other medium. For example, enterprise printing operations and in-plants risk leaking sensitive information every time hard-copy documents are left unattended in output trays; or when hard drives in printing devices have not been secured against tampering. When it occurs, that kind of negligence is unforgivable, too.

Americans, state the authors, “have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of the records that are maintained by a variety of institutions in the digital age.” Small wonder, they conclude, that people were often “downcast” about the future of privacy in responding to the survey.

Print may not be a major contributor to their dejection. But, for as long as people continue to rely on print as a vehicle for bank statements, legal briefs, doctors’ reports, school grades, and other kinds of privileged communication, care will have to be taken to safeguard the privacy-protecting reputation for document security it still enjoys.