PEW Research: 91% Of Americans Feel They Have No Control Over Their Private Info

The effects of the Edward Snowden revelations are still felt in the United States. Pew Research has explored  people’s views of privacy extensively since Snowden blew the whistle. The results are enlightening about privacy in America today. 

91% of those surveyed believe that they have no control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies, with half of surveyed internet users concerned about the amount of their information that is online. Just 9% believe they have “a lot” of control over how their information is used.

What information about people appears online.

Americans are also nervous about the security of communications systems, in particularly online. They do not trust public nor private organizations in keeping their data secure. Small minorities express they are “very confident” that records kept by any organization will remain private and secure.

Pessimism over fate of personal information

The survey also gave insight into documents most cherished by Americans, such as Social Security numbers, health and medication information and phone conversations leading the charge as most sensitive information in the minds of Americans. What media they like, as well as their spending habits, is not considered very sensitive data. 

Adults consider their social security card their most sensitive data.

The poll found that 86% of internet users take steps protect their privacy online, with many expressing they’d like to more and do not know what tools they can use. Users clear cookies, encrypt email, do not use their name on virtual networks and even mask their own internet protocol (IP) address.

Users avoid people from their past, law enforcement, and the government.

Most Americans believe there is a price-tag on their personal information.  PEW terms it a “digital era trade-off” and references an “It depends” state of mind regarding whether or not Americans are comfortable handing over information. 

People want to know what they’re getting in return. The circumstances in their lives – probably most determined by money prospects – informs their decisions regarding what personal information to give up. They also consider whether the data will be made available to third parties and how long the data will be held by the company.

54% of Americans believe it is a fair trade-off to have surveillance cameras in the work office for security. A “smart thermostat” at home, to be sure, is only acceptable by 27% of adults, who are not interested in saving energy costs in exchange for data about their time spent at home.

Social Security are seen by Americans as the most sensitive of information, while purchasing habits are not viewed as sensitive.

It’s “very important”  to 74% of people that they are in control of in whose hands their information can land, with 65% expressing it is “very important” to them what information is gathered. PEW sums up an evolution of American conception of privacy:

If the traditional American view of privacy is the “right to be left alone,” the 21st-century refinement of that idea is the right to control their identity and information. They understand that modern life won’t allow them to be “left alone” and untracked, but they do want to have a say in how their personal information is used.

Mixed reactions about sharing personal information with companies

The above-demonstrated pessimism could be a result of the major cybersecurity breaches of recent memory. The Target credit card breach, the Ashley Madison hack and even the IRS lost control over 100,000 tax returns.

The last breach of 2016 might have been the biggest: 191,000,000 voter registration records were breached, nearly two-thirds of the nation.

Moreover, digital natives – that is, young adults – take stricter strategies to ensuring their privacy online than their elders.

Millennials understand privacy better than older adults

People believe there should be a limit on how long their information is stored. In reality, this could be a reasonable expectation, and something company’s have no problem with, considering the rate at which people’s personal information (address, emails and phone numbers) can change.

People believe information should only be held for a certain amount of time

Interestingly, most Americans believe that, while they have a right to privacy, citizens of other nations do not.

Pew2The feelings are sure to quickly evolve as news of more breaches and hacks make waves in the headlines in the coming months and years. Many cybersecurity experts believe these issues will stay on the forefront of the public mind, and people will have increasing numbers of question about how to protect their privacy.

Image from Shutterstock. Charts from PEW research.

Justin O'Connell is the founder of financial technology focused Justin organized the launch of the largest Bitcoin ATM hardware and software provider in the world at the historical Hotel del Coronado in southern California. His works appear in the U.S.'s third largest weekly, the San Diego Reader, VICE and elsewhere.