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People value their personal data based on what others tell them it’s worth, study shows

What is your privacy worth to you? It might be harder than you think to precisely answer that.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Mar 31, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 12:31 am CDT

What is your privacy worth to you?

Objectively answering that question is difficult. Putting a dollar figure on keeping a certain piece of your personal information secret initially seems like it be easy. But a recent study by a Polish economist at the University of Gdańsk showed that people’s perceptions of the value of their own privacy were strongly influenced by external price signals.

People were more likely to take steps to protect their privacy when someone told them that a piece of information had a higher value, according to the study.

In a paper entitled “I Will Sell My Private Data: The Results of an Experimental Study on the Valuation of Privacy,” published in the book Selected Issues in Experimental Economics, researcher Andrzej Poszewiecki examined how the price attached to a piece of personal data affected someone’s willingness to share it.

Poszewiecki went to Gdańsk’s largest shopping mall, the Baltic Gallery, and asked people to fill out a short survey about their personal finances in exchange for a gift voucher. He wasn’t particularly interested in the results of the survey; the real information he wanted was how people responded to the vouchers.

Poszewiecki’s team handed out three types of vouchers—one for 10 Polish zloty, another for 20, and another for 30. The subjects were told that the 10-zloty cards were anonymous—no information about them or their spending habits would be collected. However, for the 20- and 30-zloty cards, survey-takers would need to provide their PESEL, the Polish equivalent of an American Social Security number.

Researchers asked 154 people to participate in the study. Everyone who was offered the 10-zloty voucher elected to fill out the survey. Thirty-five percent of people offered the 20-zloty voucher declined to participate due to privacy concerns, which is understandable: a PESEL is a fairly intimate piece of personal information to provide to a complete stranger.

Things really got interesting with the 30-zloty voucher. The rejection rate was actually higher (38 percent) than with the 20-zloty voucher. That gap was entirely driven by men, who rejected the larger zloty amount at a higher rate than they rejected the smaller amount (46 percent vs. 37 percent). Women were slightly less likely to reject the larger amount than the smaller amount (31 percent vs. 33 percent).

The conclusion here is that, particularly for men, putting a price on privacy is tricky. People tend to rely on external signals for what their personal information is worth, and those signals can have a powerful effect on how comfortable people are with sharing that data.

“In the case of virtually any good we are dealing with a market that in various forms sets the price of a given good,” Poszewiecki wrote. “However, in the case of privacy, this type of market is not functioning, and the valuation of privacy is difficult.”

Photo via Eric Vernier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 31, 2016, 9:06 am CDT