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Americans' Confidence in Privacy of Electronic Communications is Very Low

Telephone by Vincent AF via Flickr
Telephone by Vincent AF via Flickr
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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November 13, 2014

Pew has a new poll out on Americans’ attitudes toward privacy, and it is full of interesting findings. A New York Times blog piece on the poll focused on the so-called “privacy paradox”—people’s seeming willingness to share personal information despite their professed concern over privacy (more on that below). But for me the most striking finding is that Americans’ confidence in the privacy and security of electronic communications is very low, with over half thinking that email, text messages, chat, and social media are “not at all” or “not very secure.” In too many ways, these beliefs are well-founded, and yet these are the mediums that Americans are using more and more to communicate in their everyday lives.

One problem is that if people don’t have confidence that they can communicate privately, that will leave many feeling uneasy and insecure in their communications. That is not how people should go through life in a free, democratic society. When asked if they feel they do enough to protect their own privacy online, 61% feel they “would like to do more.” For anyone with an understanding of how limited our privacy is, it’s impossible to go online without being haunted by that feeling. And that lack of confidence will inevitably drive people to seek other means of communicating when they feel they must have privacy, and therefore reduce the societal value of these communications channels.

Fully 80% of adults say Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications. Just 18% disagree. Similarly, 80% say they are concerned about the use of data by social networking sites. Sometimes we see people on the government side of the privacy debate claiming that we should be focused on the corporate side, or vice versa, but the truth is (as this poll also found) people care about both and (as I argued at greater length here) both matter greatly.

Other interesting findings from the poll:

  • Landline telephones. Pew asked respondents how private and secure they felt various communications mediums were, and people felt most secure with landline telephones. I suspect that reflects a recognition of the fluidity and insecurity of “data” in today’s world, and the feeling that landline telephones aren’t built around data (despite the fact that that’s increasingly is not the case). It’s probably no coincidence too that landline telephones are also the oldest and most established communications medium, and are subject to the most mature set of regulatory rules and protections for privacy.
  • Location tracking. As someone who has tried to spread understanding of the sensitivity of location tracking data, I was pleased to see that 82% consider such data to be sensitive (including 50% who say “very sensitive” and 32% “somewhat sensitive”).
  • Anonymous speech. Fully 42% of respondents reported having posted comments, questions or other information online anonymously—a reaffirmation of the importance of anonymous speech online. Interestingly, the younger a person is the more likely they are to post anonymously, according to the survey.
  • Privacy and the young. The poll contains more data points undercutting the myth that there’s some generational shift underway away from privacy, such as the finding that more young people than old consider the contents of their email to be very sensitive. (I took on that myth last year in this piece.)
  • Free online services. While online service providers are increasingly looking to “personalization” as a source of differentiation and profits, and the advertising industry would have us believe the myth that online services will disappear without ever-expanding access to our personal details, Americans’ attitudes seem to fly in the face of those trends. By a nearly 2-1 margin they disagree with the statement, “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access to my personal data.” True, 55% agree that they are willing to share “some” information about themselves to use any online services for free—but that is such a broad statement that only someone who would never share any information with anyone online, no matter how trusted, would be able to honestly disagree.
  • Bad online experiences. Pew reports that “only” 11% of adults report having had a bad experience due to embarrassing or inaccurate information posted about them online. For young adults (aged 18-29), who probably use the internet more, the rate was 16%. To me these numbers do not seem low at all; the fact that more than one in 10 users had a bad experience of this kind, which can be quite devastating, seems quite significant and a reminder of how important it is for people to retain control of their information. And 16% of all adults also report having asked someone to remove or correct online information about them.
  • A fundamental divide. Probably the most fundamental attitudinal divide among Americans was in response to a Pew query on whether “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online.” Here we get to the true heart of the privacy issue—the question of whether people value individual freedom and autonomy, or the ability of the community to watch over what individuals are doing. A person’s view on that matter, I strongly suspect, will govern his or her attitudes across a wide variety of public policy matters that implicate privacy rights. Pew found that 62% disagreed with the statement, while 36% agreed.

Finally, on that “privacy paradox,” I don’t actually think it’s much of a paradox. Much of it (as EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg points out in the piece) can be explained through network effects and lock-in—the fact that networks like Facebook are natural monopolies with (as economists put it) increasing returns to scale. You can’t just pick the network that you like best as you can with your breakfast cereal; you have to use the one everyone else is using, as does everyone else, which ends up locking everyone in. In addition, privacy is in many contexts a diffuse and/or abstract concern, and therefore it’s only natural that it often gives way to sharper, more immediate needs. So in an environment where legal protections are absent, people end up making compromises even though they don’t feel good about it.

There’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to have their cake and eat it too—to enjoy conveniences and social communications without giving up control over their information. Unfortunately, in today’s world they can’t, and powerful forces oppose any steps to fix it. But as Pew found, by a roughly 2-1 margin Americans do want to fix it; 64% believe the government should do more to regulate “what advertisers do with their personal information,” compared with 34% who think it should not.

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