Report: People Don't Trust Government To Protect Privacy

The vast majority of Americans are concerned about their privacy, and almost half of them on average doubt the government will protect it, a think tank finds.
The vast majority of Americans are concerned about their privacy, and almost half of them on average doubt the government will protect it. This according to a report released this week by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy think tank.

The survey of more than 6,300 Americans, sponsored by the CIO Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, an IT education and research organization, asked adults to rate their confidence in different government agencies as it pertains to privacy. Privacy is important or very important to 83% of them. And the average privacy trust score of 52% indicates that "the general public holds a relatively low or negative impression of various federal government organizations that are presented in our survey."

The U.S. Postal Service received the highest marks, with a 78% favorable rating. The Internal Revenue Service also did well, coming in third at 75%. The Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice had the lowest marks, with 21% and 22%, respectively.

"I do think the findings show there's a wide range of perception about what the government does and doesn't do," says Larry Ponemon, founder of the Ponemon Institute and an adjunct professor of ethics and privacy at the CIO Institute. While stressing that one should be careful when drawing conclusions based on such research, he notes that a lot of respondents "expressed concern about Big Brother and the violation of civil liberties."

Subjects cited loss of civil liberties (64%), surveillance into personal life (63%), and monitoring of E-mail and Web activities (47%) as having the biggest impact on their privacy perceptions.

Still, Ponemon cautioned against misconstruing the low ratings given government law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. While debriefing subjects about their views, many preferred a low privacy rating for those agencies if that meant greater personal safety.

As others have suggested, the public's view on privacy often appears schizophrenic. "People want privacy," he says, "but they're not willing to lose convenience."

For those setting privacy policies, the question becomes how to balance public concern with public policy, Ponemon says. "It is one of those issues where if you're in government and a CIO, you have to consider what you do to maintain the trust of the public."

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