Why you shouldn't trust Web privacy polls

A new survey suggests a majority of Americans worry that Google and Facebook know too much. Here's why you shouldn’t take it seriously.

According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, more than half of Americans say they're concerned about the ability of Google and Facebook to "track physical locations and monitor spending habits and personal communications."

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Sounds ominous, doesn't it? The Internet masses are finally waking up to the nefarious intentions of their new search and social media overlords. But if you look a little closer, the scare mongering doesn't really hold up.

Here are the details, according to Reuters:

Of 4,781 respondents, 51 percent replied "yes" when asked if those three companies, plus Apple, Microsoft and Twitter, were pushing too far and expanding into too many areas of people's lives.

First of all, while 51% is technically a "majority," on a basic question like this, the results might be better described as pretty much an even split.

Second, there's a huge difference between agreeing when someone asks and actually caring enough to make even small changes in your behavior.

What you gonna do about it?

I'll believe that Google and Facebook truly have a privacy problem when significant numbers of people stop using Gmail, turn to Bing for search, and quit Facebook for a reason other than that it's not hip enough anymore.

So far, that's not what I'm seeing. Despite the doomsayers warning that "data flowing through the Web have translated into a candy store for criminals," the big problems still seem to come from attacks on corporate systems, like last year's Target incident. That's why polls have been coming back this way for years (see this similar poll from 2011), even as these companies continue to grow at a breakneck pace.

Support for that theory comes from a similar Reason-Rupe poll last fall. In that survey, only 11% named Facebook as the entity they trusted most to protect their privacy, while 22% said Google. The NSA was the most-trusted entity with 37%.

More damning evidence against Facebook and Google, right? Not so fast:

When responding to the question "Who do you think is most likely to violate your privacy?" the same respondents ranked the NSA as the number one organization among the group most likely to violate your privacy with 36 percent. Facebook came in second at 26 percent... and Google came in at 12 percent.

It just doesn't add up. People think they should be concerned about privacy, so they say they are when asked. But that's about it.

Not as worried as they should be?

Of course, none of this addresses the issue of whether or not people actually should be worried about their privacy in the hands of Google, Facebook, and their competitors. While I don't believe these companies are actively out to destroy their users' privacy, it seems pretty clear that protecting that privacy is far from their chief concern.

People who really care about their privacy should be very careful in their use of these services, or avoid them altogether. But for most people, the issue simply isn't important enough to garner anything more than lip service.I don't see that changing any time soon.

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