The majority of American citizens believe that they are pervasively monitored and that their data is regularly collected and used in concerning ways that they cannot control and don't fully understand, according to a new Pew Research Center study.
The report, based on a nationally representative panel of randomly selected US adults, shows that 62% of Americans feel they cannot prevent companies from collecting data on their activities, while 63% feel the same about government data collection.
Roughly eight out of every 10 Americans say they have very little or no control over how companies use their data, but are very concerned about how companies are using it. The vast majority conclude that the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits, the study found.
"Clearly this survey adds up to a portrait of distress and a willingness to hear about policy options," says Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. "The panoramic picture it paints is a society that is not happy ... they are concerned. They don't feel that they have control. They don't think the benefits outweigh the risks anymore."
The survey comes a year-and-a-half after the discovery that Cambridge Analytic used data from Facebook to create profiles on Americans to help the Trump campaign target ads against susceptible groups of Americans, and six years after Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked documents on the surveillance efforts of US intelligence agencies.
American feel that they have not benefited from the data economy and they don't trust the companies who collect their data, according to the Pew report.
"[L]arge shares are worried about the amount of information that entities, like social media companies or advertisers, have about them," the report said. "At the same time, Americans feel as if they have little to no control over what information is being gathered and are not sold on the benefits that this type of data collection brings to their life."
Different segments of Americans have differing thresholds for gauging what is acceptable data use. Almost half — 49% — of American find it acceptable that the government collects data on people to determine if they pose a terrorist threat, while only 25% think it's okay for a smart-speaker manufacturer to give law enforcement access to recording for law enforcement
Overall, however, Americans appear to think that companies have not delivered on the trust given to them.
Consumers "don't know how to intervene in the system to make it work better," says Pew's Rainie. "They don't think that the companies who collect the data are good stewards of the data."
Who Reads Those Privacy Notices?
The current system of turning every data relationship between a consumer and a company into a contractual exchange where the customer purportedly reads a notice of how the company intends to use the data and consents to those terms has largely failed, according to the Pew data. While more than half of respondents (57%) encounter a privacy notice at least every week, only one in five (22%) claim they read the notices all the way through before agreeing.
Pew's Rainie believes that people are likely exaggerating their diligence. "We don't fact check, so the way we read that (the 22% data point) is that is a high-water mark," he says. "The overview answer is: A lot of people admit that they don't read the policies. A third do not read them at all."
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Americans are open to new approaches to privacy and data-protection laws. Currently, 63% of those surveyed do not understand current privacy laws, but three-quarters (75%) say that companies should be more regulated than they are now.
However, in potentially good news for companies, more people are in favor of better tools to manage data collection (55%) than are in favor of legislation.
But because citizens do not seem to have the same opinions over where the privacy lines should be drawn, policies continue to be difficult to form, Rainie says.
"The policymakers would love to know where are the right lines — what seems legitimate to some people is not legitimate to others ... The fact that Americans' view of privacy ends up as a conditional set of judgements makes it hard to say, for every circumstance, this is where the line is. These data do not give that kind of clarity."
Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "How Medical Device Vendors Hold Healthcare Security for Ransom.'"Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio