March 16, 2015

Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden

Introduction

Edward Snowden’s release of internal National Security Agency documents in June 2013 has catapulted government surveillance issues and privacy policy questions to a new level of national and scholarly discourse.

The documents Snowden leaked about the NSA suggest that large American information technology companies are compelled to share data with the government about foreign individuals as part of a program called PRISM. Data about Americans’ use of communications and search engine tools may be collected “incidentally” when related to foreign intelligence. Under the same authority, the government can tap directly in to fiber optic cable networks that transfer data about virtually everything a user does on the Web and other internet-based platforms.

The NSA’s documents also showed that American phone companies are required to provide the government with citizens’ phone records on a daily basis. The NSA and its British equivalent, the Global Communications Headquarters, can collect identifying data about a phone’s user through mobile apps, including age, gender, location, and other information.

The Western intelligence agencies have argued in courts that bulk collection programs including data about Americans are crucial to its national security efforts. Still, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent panel appointed by the White House, suggested that bulk surveillance did not help prevent any attacks in the United States, and recommended discontinuing bulk collection of American phone metadata.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center showed that the American public is concerned about surveillance by government and businesses and lacks confidence in the security of their information on several key communications channels. Partly in response to concerns like these, President Obama has promised reform to limit the collection of American communications, and that of foreign individuals unrelated to a terrorist investigation.

At the policy and scholarly level, the Snowden leaks have become a touchstone for debate about the role of “big data” in modern society, the legality and ethics of bulk surveillance and how to consider what people’s electronic records say about who they are. At the same time, civil liberties and human rights groups have been arguing that electronic surveillance chills speech, driving some journalists, writers, law professionals, and ordinary citizens to self-censor their digital communications instead of speaking openly. A recent Pew Research Center survey of investigative reporters showed that some report they have changed their engagement with their sources and their use of technology in light of the Snowden disclosures.

The ongoing public dialogue about surveillance comes alongside a growing awareness of large-scale breaches of consumer data. The earlier research from the Pew Research Center found that 91% of American adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that they have lost control over how their information is collected and used by companies. While Americans value their personal privacy, they often feel ill-equipped to take steps to manage their personal data. When they want to have online anonymity, only 24%“agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement, “it is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online.” And some 61% say they “would like to do more” to manage their personal information online. In a climate of growing awareness of surveillance, we set out to examine what privacy strategies Americans have been adopting since learning of the Snowden disclosures.

To continue exploration of these and other surveillance-related issues, Pew Research created an online panel of adults who agreed to respond to four surveys and participate in focus groups related to digital privacy over the span of one year. In this survey, we find there are often serious fissures in the public about the way the surveillance programs work and how they are overseen. At the same time, a number of adults have been taking some simple steps to manage their digital privacy online and by using communication channels that they perceive are more secure. However, despite widespread concern about their privacy, many are not aware of a variety of tools that would help to secure their personal data and communications.