November 12, 2014

Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era

Few Feel that the Government or Advertisers can be Trusted

Americans’ lack of confidence in communications security is accompanied by low levels of trust in government and advertisers

The backdrop for this lack of confidence in communications security is low levels of trust in key sectors that Americans associate with data collection and monitoring. While the surveillance practices of government agencies have been the focus of many public discussions and debates post-Snowden, previous research from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project has suggested that Americans are also concerned about data collection by advertisers. Additionally, public concern over the amount of personal information businesses are collecting has been growing.
Low levels of trust in government and advertisersSince around 2010, levels of trust in the federal government have been at historic lows. Previous Pew Research data shows that trust in the government has been declining since the early 2000s (immediately after 9-11) to its current post-recession level; trust in government has not been this low since the summer of 1994.13

Currently, just 18% of adults believe that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right either all (2%) or most (16%) of the time, while another 67% say that the government can be trusted only some of the time and 14% say it can never be trusted. As has been the case in other surveys, there are significant differences by education level, as adults who did not attend college are more likely to say the government can “never” be trusted (21%) compared with those with at least some college experience (9%).

Broad concern about government and third-party access to info on social networking sitesHowever, Americans do not trust advertisers any more than they do the federal government. Few respondents believe that advertisers can be trusted to do what is right just about all (1%) or most (11%) of the time; 71% say that advertisers can be trusted only some of the time, and 16% say they can never be trusted. There are few differences in adults’ trust levels toward advertisers by demographic group, with the exception of household income: 27% of those living in lower-income households (earning less than $30,000 per year) say that advertisers can “never” be trusted, making them more likely to say this than those living in higher income households.

Among the 64% of adults who use social networking sites, we find that seven in ten say (70%) say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on those sites without their knowledge; this includes 37% who say they are “very concerned,” and 34% say they are “somewhat concerned.” Another 25% say they are “not too concerned” about the government accessing their information, and just 4% say they are “not at all concerned.”

Similarly, 80% of social networking site users on the panel say that they are at least somewhat concerned about third parties such as advertisers or businesses accessing some of the information they share on those sites without their knowledge; this includes 35% who say they are “very concerned” and 45% who say they are “somewhat concerned.” Another 17% say they are “not too concerned,” and just 2% say they are “not at all concerned.” In contrast to many other questions in the survey, there were only minor variations by age, education, or household income.

An overwhelming majority of the American public senses a loss of control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies

Beyond social networking sites, Americans express a broader loss of control over the way their personal data is managed by companies. Fully 91% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” This includes 45% who “strongly agree” and 46% who “agree” that consumers have lost control. Another 6% “disagree,” while only 1% “strongly disagree” with this sentiment.

Those with a college education are more likely than those who have not attended college to “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control, 51% vs. 40%.

Respondents who are more aware of government surveillance programs also express a greater loss of control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies. Those who said they had heard a lot were more likely to “strongly agree” with a loss of control over their personal information compared with those who had heard “a little” or “nothing” about surveillance programs (58% vs. 37%).

Most Americans support greater regulation of advertisers and the way they handle personal information

Even as Americans express concern about government access to their data, they feel as though government could do more to regulate what advertisers do with their personal information; 64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.

Support for more regulation of advertisers is consistent across an array of demographic groups. However, those who have a college education are more likely than those who have not attended college to support more government intervention (69% vs. 58%).

  1. For more information, see “Trust in Government Nears Record Low, But Most Federal Agencies Are Viewed Favorably” http://www.people-press.org/2013/10/18/trust-in-government-nears-record-low-but-most-federal-agencies-are-viewed-favorably/ and its accompanying interactive chart: http://www.people-press.org/2013/10/18/trust-in-government-interactive/