For nearly two years, Americans have been inundated with stories about lost and stolen data. Company after company, organization after organization has been forced to apologize to consumers. Some estimates say 90 million Americans have been warned that their personal information has been placed at risk.
At the same time, our federal government has initiated numerous security projects that some consider a threat to personal privacy. Federal agents have mined massive databases of telephone calls, looking for patterns that might reveal terrorists at work. International phone calls have been monitored. There have even projects designed to mine vast commercial databases -- list of credit card purchases, for example -- to spot potential plots.
The common thread among these topics is personal privacy. To be sure, privacy is an elusive topic. But with a privacy survey we are launching today, we hope to bring the topic into sharper focus.
In other surveys, the majority of Americans say they are very concerned about their privacy. But when asked, many have difficulty defining privacy.
And there is ample evidence that for many people, their words and actions conflict. Consumers readily trade their privacy for small discounts at grocery stores, for example. Privacy economist Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has performed repeated studies showing U.S. consumers will readily trade personal information for as little as a 50-cent coupon.
Another privacy researcher, Larry Ponemon of The Ponemon Institute, has found that only about 7 percent of U.S. citizens care enough about their privacy to actually change their behavior -- to shop only at grocery stores without loyalty card programs or forgo the discounts offered by signing up for EZPass electronic toll collection.
With corporate databases of personal information growing ever larger, and security concerns weighing ever more, a robust national conversation about privacy seems more essential than ever. At MSNBC.com, we are beginning a special project that will explore the fundamental issues in the privacy debate. And with your permission and participation, we also will share our readers' opinions on the topic.
The project starts today, with the launch of our privacy survey, developed in consultation with Ponemon. We ask that you take 10 minutes to complete the questionnaire, which includes about 20 multiple choice questions and two open-ended questions. Then next month, we'll report back to you with our findings.
Please take a moment now to complete the survey. Naturally, we will not be able to deliver the final word on the subject of privacy. But with any luck, and with your help, we'll be able to advance the dialogue on this critical subject at this crucial time in our nation's history.