Why 96% Of Americans Are Nervous About Mobile Pay–And Why They Shouldn’t Be

It seems as though every company in the world is trying to get into the mobile payments game to grab their share of the billions of dollars in transaction fees. But a new survey says that, due to privacy concerns, U.S. consumers are reluctant to sign up.



For many American consumers mobile payments are still something to run away from–and fast.

That’s what research from the University of California has turned up. A new study there implies that shoppers in the U.S. aren’t yet ready for the mobile payment movement.

A large percentage of the American citizens questioned in a nationwide phone study called “Mobile Payments: Consumer Benefits and New Privacy Concerns” were found to “overwhelmingly oppose the revelation of contact information (phone number, email address and home address) to merchants when making purchases with mobile payment systems” and “an even higher level of opposition exists to systems that track consumers’ movements through their mobile phones.”

The numbers are stark. When asked if they thought their phones should “share information with stores when they visit and browse without making a purchase,” 96% objected to the tracking, 79% said they definitely would forbid it, and 17% said they “probably” wouldn’t allow it–meaning just 4% were indifferent or positive about the idea. When the question was instead about information sharing (phone number, address, and so on) at the actual point of sale, 81% objected to phone-number sharing–a mere 15% said they’d probably allow it and 3% definitely so. Similar figures emerged when the information shared was respondents’ home address.

In terms of email addresses, survey respondents were more inclined to share, with 33% definitely or probably happy to share the transaction information. Still 51% said they definitely wouldn’t share email addresses.


And overall, 74% of respondents said they are “not at all likely” or “not too likely” to adopt mobile payment systems, while just 24% say they are likely to do so.

This all sounds very, very bleak for the future of mobile pay tech in the U.S., which is being pushed by companies such as NCR, Square, Verifone, and even behemoths like PayPal. This news also, um, squares with a recent alert for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which worries that mobile payments can “expose” more personal information to multiple groups at the point of sale than traditional transactions, even via credit card, right down to third-party app writers.

But the numerous different parties in the mobile pay game needn’t worry yet. There may have been a stuble flaw in the questionnaire asked by the University of California team. The problem arises from the study question that asks, “would you voluntarily give McDonald’s your phone number and personal details when you walk in their store?” Who among us would respond any way other than: “Of course not!”? After all, that sort of question taps into the part of our personality that is apt to click on a “don’t share my personal details with third-party advertisers” when we sign up for in-store loyalty cards. When it comes to privacy issues and technology, our default setting is: suspicious. And for good reason.

And that’s the key to unraveling this problem right there: When you do use a current-tech store loyalty card you are effectively voluntarily giving the store your personal information, and “tracking” yourself. It’s why the cards exist, of course–they’re partly there as a sales incentive, to get customers back in the door via money-off offers, but mainly so the store can collate information about customers and work out what kind of products to stock, what offers to run, and what future products to plan for. And if you have multiple loyalty cards, you’re giving this information away all over the place. A similar situation exists for Groupon coupons and their ilk. Admittedly, this is on a store-by-store basis (assuming you tick the “don’t share my information” box), but millions of happy consumers do this anyway.

A new Pew Research survey shows that 80% of American adults use the Net, and 71% of those use it for shopping–meaning they’ve typed in all their personal details into store interfaces. And, if you think about it, Google already knows much of this stuff already. And PayPal certainly knows where you spend your online money, on what items and how frequently. Facebook is also trying to get into this game too, and it knows everything about you. All these firms aggregate Big Data independently, and though this fact sometimes gets blown out of proportion by the media or lawmakers, it still goes on and we (sometimes even merrily) participate.


For these reasons and others education is one route to making consumers warm to the idea of mobile payments. That is, eventually it might make sense for mobile pay industry leaders to join together for a marketing campaign that points out to consumer that they already share much of this highly personal information with merchants and numerous third-party companies (like consumer research firms).

And then there’s the novel fact that may surprise consumers: A mobile payments standard may actually allow them better control over this data, because instead of being shared across different loyalty schemes and different merchants and third parties, it’s all corraled in one place–in their phone (or whatever mobile pay app they’re using). It’s all but certain you’ll be able to configure this system to choose how much personal information you share on each transaction, or by store, or by date, or by whatever criteria you choose. The stores themselves may then opt to not offer you discounts, coupons, or other incentives, but that’s your choice.

And the Californian research team behind the paper have another solution in mind: “Adapting provisions of California’s Song-Beverly Credit Card Act, which prohibits merchants from requesting personal information at the register when a consumer pays with a credit card, to mobile payments systems.” This would work because as the survey says personal sharing is a worry, and consumers would actually welcome controls, and “Song-Beverly could be adopted to accommodate those who wish to share their transaction data.”

Essentially, whichever of the many vying firms gets a significant early grip on the mobile payments market will have to take part in a large-scale, open, frank, “hearts and minds” PR campaign to explain the benefits of signing up to sharing at least some personal information. And they’ll likely have to back it up with some fleet-footed lobbying.

[Image: Flickr user Luz Adriana Villa A. ]


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)