Two interesting items re privacy.  A poll released last week by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion revealed that fully half of Americans who have a profile on social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are worried about their privacy.  And the publication of results from a clever study of shoppers in a Pittsburgh shopping mall explored how willingly people would forfeit personal privacy in exchange for tangible benefits, in this case more money.

Of the 50 percent of people surveyed who were concerned about social networking privacy, 23 percent are very concerned and 27 percent were concerned.  “We’re in an era of information. Some people are concerned, reluctant and skittish about the extent of online information. There’s a privacy element that some people feel is getting lost,” Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Institute told Reuters.  “It doesn’t take much to increase the concern factor and when headlines start blaring about breakdowns in privacy, that goes a long way to raising people’s concerns.”

While half the population being concerned about privacy is a high number, I’m sure the figure will continue to climb.  My fear is that those who aren’t concerned simply haven’t given the issue much thought, and have yet to be burned by, say, a potential employer that doesn’t like what it sees on a job applicant’s Facebook wall.

The oldest Americans are the most worried. 65 percent of those 60 and older have some degree of concern about their privacy on a social networking site.  Women with a social networking profile are more concerned about their privacy than men.  A majority of women — 57 percent — have some level of anxiety about the issue compared with 43 percent of men.

The study of shoppers in Pittsburgh was conducted by three scholars from Carnegie Mellon University, and reported by Steve Lohr in the New York Times.

The research paper describes a field experiment at a Pittsburgh shopping mall. People were given choices between two kinds of gift cards: a $10 gift card that was anonymous and a $12 gift card that would include personal information (and transactions made with the card would be linked to the holder’s name).

One group of people was presented first with the $10 card, and told they could trade it for a $12 card. About half switched to the $12 card, and half refused the offer.

Another group was first given the $12 card, and asked if they wanted to switch to the $10 card, trading cash for greater privacy. Less that 10 percent switched.

It was the same choice, only presented differently. And the research was structured so the sample groups were as comparable as possible.

What conclusion to draw? “When you have privacy, you value it more,” said Alessandro Acquisti [one of the paper’s authors and an associate professor in information technology and public policy.] “But when the starting point is that we feel we don’t have privacy, we value privacy far less.”

So Mr. Acquisti says those experts who say people don’t care about privacy are off-base. Instead, he said, the perception that people place little value on privacy is shaped by their low expectations, which Mr. Acquisti termed the “continual psychological conditioning that we don’t have privacy, that our personal information is widely available and we can’t control that.”

“In our everyday lives,” Mr. Acquisti concluded, “we are more like those people presented the $12 card.”

A defining issue this decade is sure to be how our society grapples the issue of privacy.  We will be tempted daily with the $10 vs. $12 choice.