From government surveillance and behavior-based advertising, to social media and search-engine tracking, there are plenty of ways for Americans to lose their privacy online. With such a long trail of digital crumbs that online users leave behind, are they even worried anymore about losing privacy, or is that par for the course in the digital age?
Turns out, the majority of Americans still place high value on their privacy. Yet few are confident that the entities collecting the data can be trusted to keep it private and secure.
Those were the findings in a recent report by the Pew Research Center, “Americans’ Attitudes About Privacy, Security and Surveillance.”
How the USA FREEDOM Act impacts the privacy concerns of Americans remains to be seen.
The legislation was approved by the Senate on Tuesday. It already has been approved by the House, and President Barack Obama has promised to sign it into law. The bill reforms the way the National Security Agency collects phone data — ending bulk surveillance, which was deemed illegal last month by a federal appeals court.
However, the USA FREEDOM Act extends through 2019 several other top provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act that expired on June 1.
(USA FREEDOM is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring.)
The Center for Democracy and Technology hailed the Senate move as a victory but called for further action from Congress.
“Passage of the USA FREEDOM Act is the most significant national security surveillance reform measure in the past three decades,” said CDT Advocacy Director Harley Geiger in a statement, “but the bill does not solve all the problems with surveillance.”
Watchers Are Everywhere
Meanwhile, the Pew report underscores the citizenry’s sense of powerlessness regarding the enormous size of the data “warehouses” — maintained both by the government and the commercial sectors.
Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, the authors of the report, wrote that events like the Snowden revelations and multiple retail security breaches “have contributed to a cloud of personal ‘data insecurity’ that now looms over many Americans’ daily decisions and activities.”
Using a recent study as well as previous surveys by Pew Research, the two authors found that Americans still find privacy 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,” they wrote.
Among Pew’s most recent findings:
- Of the 461 adults surveyed, 74% felt it’s “very important” for them to control who can get their information, and an additional 19% find that “somewhat important.”
- The majority — 65% — felt it’s “very important” to control what information is collected, and an additional 25% that it’s “somewhat important.”
- Those surveyed had strong feelings about not having someone watching or listening to them without permission.
When it comes to the consumers’ trust in data collectors’ ability to maintain the privacy and security of the information, however, the numbers were skewed to the opposite side of the scale in a separate, earlier Pew survey of nearly 500 adults.
Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?
Half of the respondents in that survey felt they have “not much control” (37%) or “no control at all” (13%) over how their information is being collected and used.
Fewer than 10% felt “very confident” about all categories of entities that collect data — with credit card companies earning the highest trust (9%) and online video and social media sites as well as online advertisers having the most dismal rate (1%).
The numbers of Americans who felt “somewhat confident” in the same entities ranged between 6%and 29%, once again with credit card companies inspiring the most confidence. The 11 categories also included land-line and mobile phone companies, government agencies, retailers and email providers.
Despite those feelings, the majority of the consumers haven’t changed their behavior to improve their privacy by doing things like clearing browser cookies and refusing to give information not relevant to the transaction.
And a slim number have encrypted phone calls, text messages or emails (10%), or used tools for surfing online anonymously (9%).
Not surprisingly, one area Americans feel strongly about is limiting Internet and telephone data collected by the government. Pew found that the more Americans knew about government surveillance, the less they felt in control of their data.
More on Data Privacy:
- Identity Theft: What You Need to Know
- 3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
- How Credit Impacts Your Day-to-Day Life