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Survey: Surveillance Is Fine as Long as It's Not on Me

By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 16, 2015 3:12 PM PT

Growing concern over surveillance in cyberspace has people changing their online behavior, according to a report released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

Survey: Surveillance Is Fine as Long as It's Not on Me

Nearly 90 percent of the 475 adults surveyed said they were aware of government surveillance programs targeting Internet users.

"That's a very high number," said Omer Tene, vice president of research and education at the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

"It's a big development," he told TechNewsWorld. "Until a couple of years ago, when I told people I worked on privacy, most of them would stare at me with a blank look not knowing what I meant."

Moreover, of those aware of the programs, more than a third (34 percent) had taken at least one measure to hide or shield their information from the government.

Changing Behavior

Among the measures taken in response to government surveillance were changing social media settings (17 percent), avoiding certain apps (15 percent), reducing social media use (15 percent), increasing face-to-face conversations (14 percent), uninstalling certain apps (13 percent), avoiding certain terms in online communication (13 percent), and deleting social media accounts (8 percent).

While more people are trying to hide their activity from the kinds of surveillance first revealed by Edward Snowden two years ago, there's an irony associated with their efforts.

"Most of the steps mentioned are really not effective for avoiding government surveillance," said Robert Neivert, COO of Private.me.

"They are good for other reasons -- protection from hacking and things like that -- but they're not terribly effective against the NSA," he told TechNewsWorld.

The adults in the survey appear to be aware that their efforts to thwart government surveillance leave something to be desired.

"Our survey showed that half of Americans think it would be difficult for them to find tools and strategies to help them be more private as they use technology," observed Pew Senior Researcher Mary Madden.

"The vast majority have not yet adopted some of the more advanced tools that would encrypt their communications or make them less visible when they are using the Internet," she added.

The NIMBY Syndrome

For a long time, there's been a disconnect between online users' concern about privacy and what they're doing to address those concerns, noted privacy attorney Alexandra Ross.

"Those surveyed who felt strongly that there was no longer an appropriate balance between national security interests and privacy concerns are taking some small or incremental changes in their behavior, but many are still not aware of the technologies that can protect privacy and security," she told TechNewsWorld.

"That's an opportunity for privacy advocates to educate users on the ways that they can protect their privacy," Ross added.

Large numbers of adults supported monitoring programs aimed at suspected terrorists (82 percent), foreign leaders (60 percent), foreign citizens (54 percent) and even American leaders (60 percent), the Pew study found. However, 57 percent opposed monitoring of U.S. citizens.

"There's a bit of "not in my backyard" syndrome showing up in the survey results," said Rob Shavell, CEO and co-founder of Abine.

"People at the NSA will point out that nobody wants to be monitored, but many people like the apparent security of having other people monitored," he told TechNewsWorld.

"It's hypocritical," Shavell said, "but society is still searching for some kind of balance between what's appropriate to monitor and what's off limits."

The Pew survey shows both the concerns and frustrations of people about privacy, noted Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"People are concerned about government surveillance but find many of the privacy techniques difficult to use," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Also, as the public learns more about the [surveillance] programs, they are less persuaded they are effective," Rotenberg pointed out. "Taken as a whole, the message in the Pew survey is clear: The U.S. government should curtail its surveillance activities."


John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.


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