The Snowden Effect on Privacy Attitudes

Results from a survey by the Pew Research Center demonstrate that consumers’ attitudes about commercial and government data collection have shifted post-Snowden.

Serious concessions have been made about privacy post-Snowden, in particular about how personal information is processed and consumed online.

Results from a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center of Washington, D.C., show that the Snowden leaks have raised consumers’ consciousness about not only government, but commercial, collection of personal data. More telling: Americans lack the confidence that they have any control over their personal data, the survey said.

“That pervasive concern applies to everyday communications channels and to the collectors of their information—both in the government and in corporations,” said Mary Madden, senior researcher.

More than 90 percent of the people who took part in the survey agree consumers have no control over their online information.

More than 90 percent of the people who took part in the survey agree consumers have no control over their online information, and 88 percent understand it would be difficult to remove inaccurate information about them from the Internet. Eight out 10, the survey said, are aware of and concerned about advertisers and businesses taking advantage of what’s shared over social media.

Despite those realizations and concerns, consumers are willing to make concessions with their data in order share innocuous statuses on Facebook. According to the results, giving up some privacy for a free service such as social media is a tradeoff people are willing to make.

As for government snooping, only 36 percent of respondents fell in line with the thinking that surveillance is a plus because someone is “keeping an eye” on online activity.

“Across the board, there is a universal lack of confidence among adults in the security of everyday communications channels—particularly when it comes to the use of online tools,” Madden said.

The survey asked about six modes of communication: landlines; cell phones; text messaging; email; chat or IM; and social media. Online communication are viewed as not secure by survey takers with 81 percent having no trust in social media sites, for example. Landlines were believed to be somewhat secure by 71 percent of respondents, followed by cell phones at 52 percent. This is in contrast, of course, to evidence in various Snowden leaks about the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of phone call metadata. There is less concrete evidence the government scoops up online data, but taps on Internet data center links and the alleged subversion of several cryptography standards seems to indicate otherwise.

“Americans’ lack of confidence in core communications channels tracks closely with how much they have heard about government surveillance programs,” Madden said, adding that those who have heard about NSA surveillance are more likely to consider a channel less secure.

Surprisingly, more than 60 percent of adults older than 50 have not typed their name into a search engine to see what’s out there online about themselves; only six percent of adults have a vanity alert set up to notify them when they’ve been mentioned in online content.

As for specific data types, the respondents viewed information such as Social Security numbers, health care information and the content of phone and email messages as somewhat or very sensitive data. People, according to the results, are less worried about their physical location being disclosed, as well as they content of text messages, whom they’re texting or calling, website visits and search engine searches.

“There is a clear trend, confirmed in this survey, that Americans’ opinions have shifted from relatively clear support at the time the Snowden revelations came to light to relative disapproval,” Madden said. “Americans’ associations with the topic of privacy are also complicated and changing, particularly as younger adults approach networked environments with a different social calculus for assessing the perceived benefits and risks of these spaces.”

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