November 12, 2014

Privacy Perceptions

80% of adults believe that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications and many say key communications channels like phones and email are not secure
91% of American adults say that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies

WASHINGTON (November 12, 2014)–A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans’ perceptions of privacy are varied and reflect a wide array of concerns connected to government surveillance and commercial use of personal data. A majority of adults in a new survey by the Pew Research Center feel their privacy is being challenged along such core dimensions as the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality.

These are among the findings of a new nationally representative survey of 607 adults that explores the public’s perceptions and attitudes towards privacy in light of the ongoing public debate about government surveillance programs in the U.S.

Key findings include:

  • 80% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications.
  • 43% of adults in the survey have heard “a lot” about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity,” and another 44% have heard “a little.”
  • Only 36% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online.”

At the same time, the survey finds a universal lack of confidence among adults in the security of everyday communications channels—particularly when it comes to the use of online tools:

  • 81% of adults feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using social media sites when they want to share private information with another trusted person or organization.
  • 68% feel insecure using chat or instant messages to share private information.
  • 58% feel insecure sending private info via text messages.
  • 57% feel insecure sending private information via email.
  • 46% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” calling on their cell phone when they want to share private information.
  • 31% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using a landline phone when they want to share private information.

“One of the most notable findings in the survey is that those who have heard the most about government surveillance are more privacy-sensitive across an array of questions in the survey,” said Mary Madden, a senior researcher and lead author of the report. “Those who are more aware of the monitoring programs feel considerably less secure using any communications channel to share private information.”

In the commercial context, consumers overwhelmingly feel as though they have lost control over the way their personal data is gathered and used by companies, and they support greater regulation of advertisers.

  • 91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.
  • 64% believe the government should do more to regulate what advertisers do with customers’ personal information, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.

At the same time, they are willing to make tradeoffs in certain circumstances when their sharing of information provides access to free services:

  • 55% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free.”

When it comes to their own role in managing the personal information they feel is sensitive, most adults express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online; 61% say they “would like to do more,” to protect the privacy of their personal information online while 37% say they “already do enough.”

“Far from being apathetic about their privacy, most Americans say they want to do more to protect it,” said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, Science and Technology Research at Pew Research Center and a co-author of the study. “It’s also clear that different types of information elicit different levels of sensitivity among Americans.”

At one end of the spectrum, 90% of adults consider their social security number to be a “very sensitive” piece of personal information. By comparison, very few consider media tastes (9%) and purchasing habits (8%) to be “very sensitive.”

About this Report

This report is the first in a series of studies that examine Americans’ privacy perceptions and behaviors following the revelations about U.S. government surveillance programs by government contractor Edward Snowden that began in June of 2013. In order to examine this topic in depth and over an extended period of time, the Pew Research Center commissioned a representative online panel of 607 adults. These panelists have agreed to respond to four surveys over the course of one year. The findings in this report are based on the first survey, which was conducted in English and fielded online January 11-28, 2014.

Media Contacts

Mary Madden, Senior Researcher – mmadden@pewresearch.org and 202-419-4372

Lee Rainie, Director of Internet Science and Technology research – lrainie@pewresearch.org and 202-419-4372