November 12, 2014

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

Introduction

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records, various news organizations have explored the idea that “privacy is dead.” At the same time, others have suggested that renewed public attention to the topic has meant that privacy is, in fact, “thriving online,” or at the very least, “not dead yet.” Some of this disconnect is attributable to the longstanding tendency of privacy debates to frame the issue in binary terms; either people have privacy or they don’t. But in practice, some scholars and analysts have argued that privacy is not something that one simply has, but “something that one seeks to achieve,” through ongoing negotiation of new contexts and changes in the way information flows.

What is perhaps a less disputed notion is that privacy is being discussed with new urgency in recent years in America. Between June 2013 and June 2014, there were nearly 1,000 English language news articles that included the word “privacy,”2 and 395 current pieces of legislation in the 113th Congress mentioned the term.3 Internet users also took to social media to talk about the topic; during the same one-year period, the word “privacy” was included in 3,783,091 tweets.4

The privacy-focused media coverage, policy debates and the social media discussion has been wide-ranging. While the revelations by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have drawn considerable attention, there have also been multiple large-scale consumer data breaches, White House-commissioned reports on “big data and privacy,” and an ongoing controversy about the privacy of students’ educational data to drive public interest in and discussion of privacy.

The urgency of these privacy-related discussions has increased as policymakers have proposed a number of measures to address government surveillance and commercial data collection. Previous research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project has found that public concern about the amount of personal information available online is growing and the majority of internet users think that current privacy laws “are not good enough” in protecting people’s privacy online.

At the same time, however, what exactly “protecting privacy online” means in practice may differ quite substantially from person to person, in different online contexts and transactions, and in response to current events. For instance, in the specific context of national security, Americans’ views about the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts are divided. Yet there is a clear trend, confirmed in this survey, that Americans’ opinions have shifted from relatively clear support at the time the Snowden revelations came to light to relative disapproval.5

Americans’ associations with the topic of privacy are also complicated and changing, particularly as younger adults approach networked environments with a different social calculus for assessing the perceived benefits and risks of these spaces.6 And for older adults, the widespread integration of digital communications technology into nearly every facet of daily life has meant that even those who are not connected to these networks are still affected by the data that is collected and courses through the internet.

In an effort to explore a range of questions about Americans’ privacy behaviors and attitudes, the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project created a custom online panel of adults who agreed to respond to four surveys and participate in occasional focus groups over the course of a year. Using a random subsample of the full GfK Knowledge Panel allows researchers to draw connections between survey responses and focus group discussions as well as the ability to track changes in key privacy measures over time.

The first set of findings from this research panel suggests that Americans’ perceptions of privacy and their sensitivities about different kinds of personal information are varied, but their lack of confidence in the security of digital communications channels is universal. Among the general public, there is not a high level confidence in the security of everyday communications channels—particularly when it comes to the use of online tools. Across six different methods of mediated communication, there is not one mode through which a majority of the American public feels “very secure” sharing private information with another trusted person or organization.

When they have to make a choice, the public feels most secure communicating private information via calls placed on a landline telephone or cell phone. But text messages and email are not as widely trusted. And social media sites, chat and instant messenger applications are rarely considered “very secure” means of communicating sensitive information to another trusted person or organization.

Few members of our online panel expressed high levels of trust in the government or advertisers, and most panelists are at least somewhat concerned about those entities accessing their information on social networking sites—particularly advertisers. Most adults have heard about the disclosures of government surveillance of communications, and a majority believes that online surveillance is not good for society. Those who have heard the most about the government disclosures and those who have checked up on their own digital footprints online are more privacy sensitive across an array of measures in the survey.

  1. Search conducted via the “English language news” filter on LexisNexis for the period of January 1-June 18, 2014.
  2. Search conducted via www.congress.gov on June 27, 2014. A separate search of Westlaw archives conducted in October 2014 indicated that 6,932 federal cases had mentioned the word “privacy” in their decisions since Jun  2013.
  3. Analysis conducted using Crimson Hexagon (date range from January 1, 2014-June 18, 2014).
  4. See: http://www.people-press.org/2014/01/20/obamas-nsa-speech-has-little-impact-on-skeptical-public/
  5. See: danah boyd, It’s Complicated and Madden et al., “Teens, Social Media and Privacy”: http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/05/21/teens-social-media-and-privacy/