May 20, 2015

Americans’ Attitudes About Privacy, Security and Surveillance

Introduction

As the two-year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s historic leaks of top secret National Security Agency documents approaches, the public debate about government surveillance reform has been reignited. With section 215 of the Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, 2015, policymakers have responded by introducing two new bills currently under consideration in Congress. A Patriot Act reauthorization bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would primarily seek to extend the life of the controversial provision until 2020, while the USA Freedom Act, a bill that has already passed the House with bipartisan support, would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of telephony metadata.

The language of Section 215 has been controversial, in part because it has been used to justify the government’s collection of any “tangible things” that might possibly be relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation. Among the files leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden that were published in June 2013 was a previously undisclosed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) order that demonstrated the government was using an interpretation of Section 215 to authorize the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records.

Privacy advocates argue that the law, and this expansive interpretation, allows for an unprecedented and broad reach for government monitoring of citizens in the name of protecting national security. Some supporters of Section 215 and the Patriot Act as a whole contend that the law supports critical programs to protect Americans’ safety and that the intelligence community already has administrative safeguards in place to address privacy concerns. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records through this program was illegal, but the ruling did not include an injunction requiring the program to end.

Last fall, the first report in this Pew Research Center privacy series showed that the American public is broadly concerned about government surveillance efforts and that, among adults, there is now a near-universal lack of confidence in the security of everyday communications channels when they want to share private information with another trusted party; this is particularly true when it comes to the use of online tools.

The second report in this series found that among those who have heard about the government monitoring programs, a modest number have been taking some simple steps to more closely manage their digital privacy online and use communication channels that they perceive to be more secure. However, those who have taken more advanced steps (the leading-edge privacy enthusiasts) are still the exception. Despite widespread concern about their privacy and a desire to do more to protect it, many Americans are not yet aware of a variety of tools that would help to secure their personal data and communications.2

In addition, recent Pew Research analysis suggests that some Americans are not taking greater steps to protect their personal information online because they do not think it will be effective in preventing government monitoring. Still others think the use of certain privacy-enhancing tools might actually be a red flag that makes them appear suspicious and invites greater scrutiny.

This third report takes a broad look at other issues that are central to current discussions about privacy: What are the daily activities and scenarios where Americans believe that being free from observation is especially important? To what degree do they feel they have control over how information about them is collected and used? Do they think the data collectors in the government and business can keep their personal information private and secure? This report does not directly examine the issue of “intrusiveness,” and the extent to which Americans perceive certain government information-collection efforts to be an invasion of their privacy in daily life. Instead, it demonstrates the relatively high value Americans place on the privacy of daily activities and the exceedingly low levels of confidence that the American public have in the privacy and security of the records that are maintained by a variety of institutions in the digital age.3 It further documents Americans’ views that a wide array of organizations should have limits on the length of time that they can retain records of their activities and communications.

At the same time, majorities of Americans continue to express the belief that government surveillance programs should be limited and that it is important to preserve the ability to be anonymous for certain online activities. This report sheds light on the reasons people give for feeling that being anonymous online is something people should be able to do, as well as the reasons that a sizable minority find it to be a problematic part of society.

  1. In addition, other recent studies have suggested that the lack of transparency in how personal information is collected and shared by various institutions and a knowledge gap about the perceived and actual value of various categories of data may contribute to the public’s lack of action on certain privacy-related issues. See: https://www.staysafeonline.org/about-us/news/results-of-consumer-data-privacy-survey-reveal-critical-need-for-all-digital-citizens-to-participate-in-data-privacy-day.
  2. For a detailed review of the empirical research on privacy attitudes and behavior, see “Privacy and Human Behavior in the Age of Information,” by Alessandro Acquisti, Laura Brandimarte, and George Loewenstein, Science, Vol. 347 no. 6221 pp. 509-514.