5 findings about privacy

By Lee Rainie and Mary Madden

Revelations about privacy problems and privacy breaches are now a staple of daily news: Your laptop webcam may be spying on you; tens of millions of Target Corp. customers’ credit card records might have been stolen; data brokers are under fire for selling lists of rape victims, police officers, domestic violence shelters, and AIDS sufferers and other groups to marketers.

The fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks about the surveillance programs of the National Security Administration continues: Federal Judge Richard Leon, called the NSA phone and email surveillance “almost Orwellian” and a likely violation of the Constitution; the 193-member United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution affirming “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy” in the wake of revelations that the US surveillance included leaders of Germany and Brazil; and a White House advisory panel recommended that the NSA kill its massive database of phone calls in the US.

The Pew Research Center has been studying privacy issues for years both from the technology side of the story and the policy side of the story. Here are five key insights we’ve gained along the way:

1) Paradoxes in public attitudes and activities lie at the heart of privacy research.

The vast majority of Americans say privacy matters to them as a personal value and yet many live their lives in ways where disclosures about personal information are commonplace and second nature. When it comes to their policy choices, they often say that privacy is an important value, but many also indicate that issues other than privacy – such as security or acting against terrorists – can matter more than privacy.

The PRC’s Internet Project’s first study about online privacy in 2000 found what others had found: Privacy matters to Americans and they are quite anxious about it being compromised. At the same time, we found that many online Americans were doing things online that involved personal information disclosure and felt they were getting benefits from that. These crosscurrents of opinion have persistence in the project’s work ever since.Perceptions-of-the-Governments-Data-Collection-Program

When PRC’s Politics pollsters have explored public opinion about surveillance programs, there are often split verdicts. For instance, in late July, PRC found that 56% of Americans said federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on government surveillance of telephone and internet data and 70% said they believed the government was using this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism. (This survey was conducted before Judge Leon’s ruling this week.) Still, by a 50%-44% margin, people approved of the government’s data-collection program, including a notable number who believed their own email and phone calls had been monitored.

2) Privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition for most Americans.

People’s decisions about whether to disclose information about themselves and how to disclose it are highly context dependent and fluid. Their choices are shaped by what personal information is at issue; who is watching or capturing the data; and what they see as the “value proposition” of disclosing material. What really matters to people is that they be able to control how their information is captured and used.

PRC’s report about online anonymity in September is full of findings about how people place different values on different kinds of information. For example, online Americans are much more concerned about others knowing the content of their emails than they are about others knowing how they use search engines.

content to control

One of the foundational findings of pioneer privacy researcher Alan Westin a generation ago, was that the majority of Americans are what he called “pragmatists” – they are often in a transactional frame of mind as they ponder whether to disclose personal information or not. The pragmatists are judging whether the deal they are being offered for giving up some personal information is worth it as they are enticed by discounts, by access to products, services and content, or chances to win a prize or sweepstakes. The other groups he identified were “privacy fundamentalists” – the people who are eager to preserve their privacy – and “the unconcerned.”

3) Even as people want to be more anonymous at times, many feel it’s not possible in the current online environment, and they do not think current laws are good enough at protecting their privacy.

Fully 86% of internet users try to be anonymous at least occasionally, but 59% do not believe it is possible to be completely anonymous online, according to our September report.

Most internet users know that key pieces of personal information about them are available online – such as photos and videos of them, their email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, home addresses, and the groups to which they belong. Some 50% say they are worried about that these days, up from 33% in 2009.

Two-thirds (68%) of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy rights.

4) In the hierarchy of citizens’ privacy concerns, social surveillance is a more top-of-mind concern to people than government surveillance.

People are more likely to experience or witness reputational privacy breaches within their own social networks than they are to be aware of how the government’s access to their data might negatively impact their lives. When we asked internet users from whom they were trying to hide, their top answers were hackers and criminals, advertisers, friends, people from their past, and family members.

try to avoid

At the bottom of the list of concerns, only 5% of internet users said they were trying to be anonymous online to avoid the government and 4% said law enforcement.

5) The surveillance landscape has changed radically in the post 9-11, smart-phone world. Opting out of certain technologies is increasingly not a viable choice for those whose jobs or family communications depend on cell phones, social media and other online services.

There are actually several parts to this story that were highlighted in the Rainie- Barry Wellman book, Networked. First, and most obvious, is government and business surveillance and the merger of the two – even if the business world is an unwilling partner.

The second part of the story is what has been termed sousveillance. People have new ways to monitor the powerful and hold them accountable and there is really interesting energy in the worlds of journalism and civic enterprises to gather and interpret government and corporate data and hold big organizations accountable for their performance.

The final part of the story could be called coveillance – everybody is watching everybody else – sometimes in creepy, stalking ways; more often in open and harmless ways.

It’s the modern reality that media scholar danah boyd refers to as, “Public by Default … Private Through Effort” – the exact reverse of the situation in the pre-internet age when it was pretty easy to assume you could be private even when you were in public.

Next year will certainly bring more privacy news – and more insights about public behavior and attitudes. We at the PRC will be paying special attention to sorting through the contexts in which people make different kinds of decisions about disclosure and how much surveillance they will tolerate. We will also be trying to see if at least some of the reason people say privacy matters, but then behave as it if didn’t matter that much, is that they are not fully aware of all the ways information is gathered about them and how that aggregated information is used.


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