Americans’ views about privacy and surveillance are relevant to policymaking on these matters. Key legal decisions about the legitimacy of surveillance or tracking programs have hinged on the question of whether Americans think it is reasonable in certain situations to assume that they will be under observation, or if they expect that their activities will not be monitored.
BY MARY MADDEN AND LEE RAINIE Pew Research Center May 20, 2015
The cascade of reports following the June 2013 government surveillance revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have brought new attention to debates about how best to preserve Americans’ privacy in the digital age. At the same time, the public has been awash with news stories detailing security breaches at major retailers, health insurance companies and financial institutions. These events – and the doubts they inspired – have contributed to a cloud of personal “data insecurity” that now looms over many Americans’ daily decisions and activities. Some find these developments deeply troubling and want limits put in place, while others do not feel these issues affect them personally. Others believe that widespread monitoring can bring some societal benefits in safety and security or that innocent people should have “nothing to hide.”
Americans’ views about privacy and surveillance are relevant to policymaking on these matters. Key legal decisions about the legitimacy of surveillance or tracking programs have hinged on the question of whether Americans think it is reasonable in certain situations to assume that they will be under observation, or if they expect that their activities will not be monitored. A federal appeals court recently ruled that a National Security Agency program that collects Americans’ phone records is illegal. In striking down the program, Judge Gerald Lynch wrote: “Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans. Perhaps such a contraction is required by national security needs in the face of the dangers of contemporary domestic and international terrorism. But we would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language.”
Two new Pew Research Center surveys explore these issues and place them in the wider context of the tracking and profiling that occurs in commercial arenas. The surveys find that Americans feel privacy is important in their daily lives in a number of essential ways. Yet, they have a pervasive sense that they are under surveillance when in public and very few feel they have a great deal of control over the data that is collected about them and how it is used. Adding to earlier Pew Research reports that have documented low levels of trust in sectors that Americans associate with data collection and monitoring, the new findings show Americans also have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of the records that are maintained by a variety of institutions in the digital age.
While some Americans have taken modest steps to stem the tide of data collection, few have adopted advanced privacy-enhancing measures. However, majorities of Americans expect that a wide array of organizations should have limits on the length of time that they can retain records of their activities and communications. At the same time, Americans continue to express the belief that there should be greater limits on government surveillance programs. Additionally, they say it is important to preserve the ability to be anonymous for certain online activities.
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Most Americans hold strong views about the importance of privacy in their everyday lives.
The majority of Americans believe it is important – often “very important” – that they be able to maintain privacy and confidentiality in commonplace activities of their lives. Most strikingly, these views are especially pronounced when it comes to knowing what information about them is being collected and who is doing the collecting. These feelings also extend to their wishes that they be able to maintain privacy in their homes, at work, during social gatherings, at times when they want to be alone and when they are moving around in public.
When they are asked to think about all of their daily interactions – both online and offline – and the extent to which certain privacy-related values are important to them, clear majorities say these dimensions are at least “somewhat important” and many express the view that these aspects of personal information control are “very important.”
Survey results from early 2015 show:
- 93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important; 74% feel this is “very important,” while 19% say it is “somewhat important.”
- 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important—65% think it is “very important” and 25% say it is “somewhat important.”
At the same time, Americans also value having the ability to share confidential matters with another trusted person. Nine-in-ten (93%) adults say this ability is important to them, with 72% saying it is “very important” and 21% saying it is “somewhat important.”
Permission and publicness are key features that influence views on surveillance.
Americans say they do not wish to be observed without their approval; 88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission (67% feel this is “very important” and 20% say it is “somewhat important”).
However, far fewer (63%) feel it is important to be able to “go around in public without always being identified.” Only 34% believe being able to go unnoticed in public is “very important” and 29% say it is “somewhat important” to them. In both cases, all adults, regardless of age or gender, express comparable views.
The findings above come from a survey conducted Jan. 27 to Feb. 16, 2015, among 461 adults on the GfK Knowledge Panel. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points. The findings cited below in the Summary section come from a separate survey of 498 adults on the same Knowledge Panel; that survey was conducted between Aug. 5 and Sept. 2, 2014, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
Americans have little confidence that their data will remain private and secure.
For all of the 11 entities we asked about in the fall 2014 survey – from government agencies to credit card companies to social media sites – only small minorities say they are “very confident” the records maintained by these organizations will remain private and secure.
- Just 6% of adults say they are “very confident” that government agencies can keep their records private and secure, while another 25% say they are “somewhat confident.”
- Only 6% of respondents say they are “very confident” that landline telephone companies will be able to protect their data and 25% say they are “somewhat confident” that the records of their activities will remain private and secure.
- Credit card companies appear to instill a marginally higher level of confidence; 9% say they are “very confident” and 29% say they are “somewhat confident” their data will stay private and secure.
Online service providers are among the least trusted entities when it comes to keeping information private and secure. When asked about search engine providers, online video sites, social media sites and online advertisers, the majority felt “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that these entities could protect their data:
- 76% of adults say they are “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that records of their activity maintained by the online advertisers who place ads on the websites they visit will remain private and secure.
- 69% of adults say they are not confident that records of their activity maintained by the social media sites they use will remain private and secure.
- 66% of adults say they are not confident that records of their activity maintained by search engine providers will remain private and secure.
- 66% say they are not confident that records of their activity collected by the online video sites they use will remain private and secure.
Few feel they have “a lot” of control over how much information is collected about them in daily life and how it is used.
When asked how much control they feel they have over how much information is collected about them and how it is used in their everyday lives, only a small minority of Americans say they have “a lot” of control over their personal data collection and its use.
When thinking about a range of activities that might take place on a typical day, 9% say they feel they have “a lot” of control over how much information is collected about them and how it is used, while 38% say they have “some control.” Another 37% feel they have “not much control,” and 13% feel they personally have “no control at all” over the way their data is gathered and used.
A very small number say they have changed their behavior to avoid being tracked recently, but many were already engaged in more common or less technical privacy-enhancing measures.
At the time of the mid-2014 survey, the vast majority of respondents – 91% – had not made any changes to their internet or cellphone use to avoid having their activities tracked or noticed. Only 7% reported that they had made these kinds of changes in “recent months.”
At the same time, a much larger group had engaged in some everyday obfuscation tactics and privacy-enhancing measures. These activities were not necessarily in direct response to news of government monitoring programs, but, rather, represent a set of measures that respondents may have engaged in out of broader concerns about their personal info. Some of the more common activities include:
- Clearing cookies or browser history (59% have done this).
- Refusing to provide information about themselves that wasn’t relevant to a transaction (57% have done this).
- Using a temporary username or email address (25% have done this).
- Giving inaccurate or misleading information about themselves (24% have done this).
- Deciding not to use a website because they asked for a real name (23% have done this).
Advanced measures, such as the use of proxy servers and encryption are less common.
This survey included somewhat more expansive questions about advanced privacy-enhancing measures such as the use of proxy servers, virtual private networks and encryption across a variety of communications channels, following up on findings reported earlier this year. However, even with comparatively broader language, just one-in-ten Americans said they had adopted these more sophisticated steps to shield their information:
- 10% of adults say they have encrypted their phone calls, text messages or email.
- 9% say they have used a service that allows them to browse the Web anonymously, such as a proxy server, Tor software, or a virtual personal network.
Most want limits on the length of time that records of their activity can be retained.
There is wide variation across the length of time that respondents feel is reasonable for businesses and other organizations to store their data. Additionally, there is considerable variance on their views depending on the kind of organization that retains the records of the activity. In general, and even though it may be necessary to provide certain functionality, people are less comfortable with online service providers – such as search engine providers and social media sites – storing records and archives of their activity.
- 50% of adults think that online advertisers who place ads on the websites they visit should not save records or archives of their activity for any length of time.
- 44% feel that the online video sites they use shouldn’t retain records of their activity.
- 40% think that their search engine provider shouldn’t retain information about their activity.
- 40% think that social media sites they use shouldn’t save data about their activity.
At the other end of the spectrum, the vast majority of adults are comfortable with the idea that credit card companies might retain records or archives of their activity. Just 13% think that credit card companies “shouldn’t save any information.”
Those who have greater awareness of the government monitoring programs are more likely to believe that certain records should not be saved for any length of time.
Those who have had the most exposure to information about the government surveillance programs also have some of the strongest views about data retention limits for certain kinds of organizations. These differences are particularly notable when considering social media sites. Among those who have heard “a lot” about the government collecting communications data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, 55% say that the social media sites they use should not save any information regarding their activity, compared with 35% of those who have heard “a little” about the government monitoring programs.
65% of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.
When asked to think about the data the government collects as part of anti-terrorism efforts, 65% of Americans say there are not adequate limits on “what telephone and internet data the government can collect.”1 Just 31% say they believe that there are adequate limits on the kinds of data gathered for these programs. The majority view that there are not sufficient limits on what data the government gathers is consistent across all demographic groups. Those who are more aware of the government surveillance efforts are considerably more likely to believe there are not adequate safeguards in place; 74% of those who have heard “a lot” about the programs say that there are not adequate limits, compared with 62% who have heard only “a little” about the monitoring programs.
55% of Americans support the idea of online anonymity for certain activities, but many are undecided on the issue.
In the current survey, the majority of adults (55%) said that people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously for certain kinds of online activities. Another 16% do not think people should be able to remain anonymous when they are online; 27% said they don’t know.
Men are more likely than women to think people should be able to engage in certain online activities anonymously (61% vs. 49%), but support for internet anonymity does not vary by age. Education is a predictor, but income is not; adults with at least some college education are significantly more likely than those who have not attended college to believe that people should have the ability to use the internet anonymously (66% vs. 40%).
Even as they expect online anonymity, most assume that motivated people and organizations could uncover private details.
Many believe they are particularly vulnerable to people or organizations who have a motive to learn private details about their past. When considering how difficult it would be for a motivated person or organization to learn private details about their past that they would prefer to keep private, 64% of adults said it would be “not too” or “not at all” difficult for a motivated person or organization to uncover that sensitive information. Just 20% felt it would be “very” or “somewhat” difficult.
Men and women report similar responses, but those ages 50 and older (76%) are significantly more likely to believe it would be “not too” or “not at all difficult” when compared with those under the age of 50 (54%). Similarly, those with a college degree are more likely than those who have not attended college to feel more exposed (70% vs. 58%).
More about these surveys
The majority of the analysis in this report is based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted between Aug. 5, 2014, and Sept. 2, 2014, among a sample of 498 adults ages 18 or older. The survey was conducted by the GfK Group using KnowledgePanel, its nationally representative online research panel. GfK selected a representative sample of 1,537 English-speaking panelists to invite to join the subpanel and take the first survey in January 2014. Of the 935 panelists who responded to the invitation (60.8%), 607 agreed to join the subpanel and subsequently completed the first survey (64.9%), the results of which were reported in November 2014. This group has agreed to take four online surveys about “current issues, some of which relate to technology” over the course of a year and possibly participate in one or more 45- to 60-minute online focus group chat sessions. For the second survey whose results are reported here, 498 of the original 607 panelists participated. A random subset of the subpanel is occasionally invited to participate in online focus groups. For this report, a total of 26 panelists participated in one of three online focus groups conducted during December 2014. Sampling error for the total sample of 498 respondents is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.
An additional survey related to Americans’ views about the importance of privacy was conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 16, 2015, among a sample of 461 adults ages 18 or older. The sample was drawn from the same 607 adults who agreed to participate in the subpanel on privacy. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points.
For more information on the Privacy Panel, please see the Methods section at the end of this report.
The authors would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of the various outside reviewers who offered their insights at various stages of this project. In particular, we would like to thank Tiffany Barrett, danah boyd, Mary Culnan and all of the attendees of the Future of Privacy Forum Research Seminar Series, Urs Gasser, Chris Hoofnagle, Michael Kaiser, Kirsten Martin and Bruce Schneier. In addition, the authors are grateful for the ongoing editorial, methodological and production-related support provided by the staff of the Pew Research Center.
While we greatly appreciate all of these contributions, the authors alone bear responsibility for the presentation of these findings, as well as any omissions or errors.
- Due to differences in the method of survey administration and questionnaire context, these findings are not directly comparable to previous Pew Research telephone surveys that have included a version of this question. ↩
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