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Americans Flip-Flop on Personal Data Privacy

By Richard Adhikari
Nov 13, 2014 12:39 PM PT

Despite the publicity about Edward Snowden's controversial leaks, only 43 percent of 607 English-speaking adults surveyed in January had heard a lot about government surveillance efforts, and another 44 percent had heard a little, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Internet Project.

Americans Flip-Flop on Personal Data Privacy

However, 80 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Americans should be concerned about government surveillance of communications. Thirty-six percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was a good thing for society if people believed someone was keeping an eye on the things they did online.

How can this make sense?

There's a "wide disparity" in users' expectations that's informed by their experience and that of people close to them, Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

"The Snowden case certainly opened up the window on the shadowy dealings of ... government surveillance efforts, but I think it's difficult for many or most people to understand how these revelations affect them personally -- compared to, say, the impact of massive identity theft at Target and Home Depot," he explained.

Pew Research privacy survey sensitive data results

"It would be interesting to poll the same participants now to see if their concerns have changed in any way," King said.

Data-Sharing Dilemmas

Data breaches make the headlines, and whenever Facebook and Google change their privacy policies, privacy advocates howl for their blood.

Yet 55 percent of respondents said they were willing to share some information about themselves with companies in order to use their online services for free.

On the other hand, 61 percent of the adults surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed that online services were more efficient because of the increased access the services had to people's personal data.

Sixty-four percent of respondents believed the government should do more to regulate advertisers, while 34 percent thought the government should not get more involved.

Eighty-one percent of the respondents did not feel very secure -- or at all secure -- using social media sites to share private information with another trusted person or organization, Pew found.

On the question of sharing private information, 68 percent felt insecure using chat or IM to do so; 58 percent felt insecure about using text messages for that purpose; 57 percent felt insecure using email to send private information; and 45 percent felt either not very or not at all secure about sharing private information over a cellphone.

Pew Research privacy survey sharing private info results

Wishing Upon a Privacy Star?

"At the generic level, most people are concerned about privacy, and more are concerned about it than will do anything about it," Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University, told TechNewsWorld.

"If the privacy that's promised results in people not having access to sites they want to access, they'll say to hell with privacy, because they know there's so much data that's being collected about them from sources other than the Internet," he pointed out.

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents who downloaded apps preferred free, ad-supported apps over paid ones, found a Zogby poll conducted in October, but 71 percent of them agreed that tools providing them transparency and choice regarding relevant ads and data collection should be available when they go on the Web.

Reflections on the Findings

"It's alarming that only 43 percent of the respondents [to the Pew poll] had heard a lot about government surveillance and only 44 percent had heard a little," said Chris Rodriguez, a senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

"There was massive media coverage and a lot of attention around the Snowden leak, and there have been additional stories about some of the NSA's activities," he told TechNewsWorld.

The dichotomy in people's attitudes toward collection of data by governments and businesses also troubles Rodriguez, but "over the long term, people will just go with the flow," he said. "Younger people have grown up with being public on the Internet as their culture, and I think [data collection] is going to increase."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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