Americans Doubt They Can Protect Their Privacy

A Pew Research Center study finds broad concern about government and corporate data gathering, along with a desire for more government regulation of data gathering.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 13, 2014

3 Min Read

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Americans are concerned about their privacy and would like to do more to protect their privacy, but doubt their ability to do so, according to a Pew Research Center study.

The Pew Research Center Internet Project on Wednesday published findings about Americans' attitudes toward privacy following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about government access to phone records and online communication.

As other reports have indicated in the past, this one found that Americans worry about privacy but will surrender it for convenience. However, the ongoing series of news reports arising from documents revealed by Snowden have made Americans more aware of and worried about surveillance, whether done on behalf of governments or businesses.

With 43% of respondents saying that they've heard "a lot" about government monitoring of communication as an ostensible defense against terrorism and 44% saying they've heard "a little," almost all Americans surveyed believe they've lost control of their personal information.

According to the Pew Research Center study, "91% of adults in the survey 'agree' or 'strongly agree' that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies." Those aware of the Snowden disclosures have the most doubt about their ability to communicate in private.

Such concern could affect the willingness of Internet users to continue engaging with social networking sites. Some 80% of respondents who use social networking sites expressed concern that third-parties may be accessing the data they share. And 70% said they were "at least somewhat concerned" about the government accessing the information they share through social networking sites.

Then again, such risks were known and discussed for years before Snowden shined a spotlight on the absence of privacy, and Facebook still has about 1.23 billion monthly active users. Responding to a survey and actually taking privacy precautions that may lead to increased inconvenience are two different things.

Ironically, Americans want the government to limit what the private sector can do with their data even as they fret about government access to their data. Pew Research Center says, "64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved."

And at the same time, 55% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the sentiment that it is okay to share some information with businesses in order to use services for free.

In short, people want the government to protect them from themselves and they want something for nothing.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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