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Concern High About Both NSA and Corporate Surveillance Among Americans Polled

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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January 9, 2014

While I was semi-disconnected from the grid over the holidays, one of the things I missed was an article in the Washington Post detailing the results of a poll on Americans’ privacy attitudes. The article, which contains lots of “man on the street” interviews with a range of views on privacy (including the usual “I have nothing to hide” viewpoint), correctly points out that in the interpersonal realm, “there are not yet widely accepted norms about who may watch whom and when and where tracking is justified.”

But the main takeaway from the poll is that Americans express very high levels of concern about the threat to their privacy from social networks, cellphone providers, web sites “such as Google, Amazon or eBay” and the NSA. Roughly 70% said they were concerned about each, with only around 30% not at all or “not too” concerned. It is interesting that there are no significant differences between Americans’ concern over government and private-sector spying. Perhaps the reality of the Surveillance-Industrial Complex is sinking in.

A couple other observations and comments on the poll:

  • The hook of the article was that Americans express concern about privacy but also use snooping tools themselves. This is not surprising and there’s no paradox here. To begin with, privacy has always been a question of power, so (as I discussed here) there is an inherent structural incentive to spy on others, to gain the insights and advantages of doing so, while not being spied upon oneself. The legitimacy of monitoring also varies; as the article acknowledges, parent-child monitoring is vastly different from government-citizen monitoring.
  • There’s also a big difference between monitoring with the subject’s knowledge (as in the parent-child examples cited in the article) and secret spying (as in the NSA’s metadata and other programs). The poll asked people if they’d ever monitored their co-workers “without their knowledge” (only 3% admitted to doing so). It also asked those living with a partner if they’d ever monitored their partner’s “internet usage or location through their cell phone,” and 6% said yes—but the poll didn’t ask if that was without their knowledge, so those answering “yes” probably include those who use commonly available mutual-tracking apps. Fully 60% of respondents with children said they monitor their internet usage—but again the poll did not ask whether that was with or without the children’s knowledge, and that is an important distinction.
  • Only 17% say they have “ever” “encrypted [their] communications” to protect their privacy. As my colleague Christopher Soghoian pointed out to me, this is false because Americans use encryption every time they enter a credit card to buy something, every time they write an email through the webmail interface of Gmail, Hotmail and now even Yahoo Mail, and every time they send a tweet—because all of those sites use HTTPS to automatically encrypt their communications. The fact that consumers don’t realize they are encrypting their communications against passive network surveillance, even though HTTPS protects hundreds of millions of people every day, demonstrates the power of privacy by design. What we need are more services that include encryption without requiring any configuration by the user.
  • Only 13% say they have ever “used a fake name or other false information” to protect their privacy. This was surprising to me. It’s touching that Americans carry over their norms and habits of honesty, which are so socially beneficial within communities of any kind, to interactions with giant technology corporations. But it seems to me that when a prying company is forcing you to turn over personal information, and uses and abuses that information in untold ways, there is often no reason whatsoever to turn over true information about yourself, and much reason not to. I believe all moral imperatives for truthfulness are inoperative in those circumstances.