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Americans feel they have no privacy, don't trust government or advertisers

Only 2% of Americans surveyed ‘just about always’ trust the government and most believe online surveillance is bad for society, according to Pew Research on privacy and security in a post-Snowden world.

Privacy online
Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Once upon a time, if you dared to suggest the government monitored Americans’ communications then you were labeled as “paranoid,” a conspiracy theorist, or one of those “tin foil hat” types. Nowadays, thanks primarily to Edward Snowden leaking documents, only 5% of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they’ve heard “nothing at all” about such surveillance. 43% of folks have heard “a lot” and 44% have heard “a little” about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity.”

Pew Research asked the public, “When you hear the word ‘privacy,’ what comes to mind for you?” The six most common responses were:

  • 14% responded “security/safety/protection”
  • 12% said “personal”
  • 11% replied “secret/hidden”
  • 10% said “rights/let alone/4th Amendment”
  • 9% responded “my business/stay out”
  • Another 9% said “don’t have/doesn’t exist”
Pew Research responses to what privacy means to people Pew Research Center

The majority of people surveyed believe that surveillance, as in being watched online, is bad for society. A mere 2% of Americans “just about always” trust the government to do the right thing; advertisers were even more distrusted, as only 1% claimed to “just about always” trust them. These are but a few facts from Pew Research’s “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era” (pdf).

When it comes to making phone calls, people believe landline phones are the most secure. 54% of people surveyed regarded their phone conversations as “very sensitive.” What else do people consider to be “very sensitive” data?

  • 90% believe their social security number is.
  • 55% said it was their state of health and medication.
  • 54% said phone conversations.
  • 52% deemed the content of their email messages “very sensitive.”

62% of respondents said they monitor their online reputation and use a search engine to see what results are associated with their name. 61% of people claim they “would like to do more” about protecting the privacy of their information online. Only 24% of Americans “agree” or “strongly agree” that it is easy to be anonymous when online.

Pew Research reported:

Perhaps most striking is Americans’ lack of confidence that they have control over their personal information. That pervasive concern applies to everyday communications channels and to the collectors of their information—both in the government and in corporations. For example:

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.

88% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.

80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.

70% of social networking site users say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.

Feeling like you live in Orwell’s 1984 is not a good thing, but hopefully this feeling of discontent will urge people into taking action to better control their privacy online. Don't hold your breath for that, though.

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