Americans Know They've Already Lost Their Privacy

In an exclusive poll, many say they're anxious about the brave new world of connectivity and surveillance.

Magnifying glass over building.  (National Journal)

Big Brother is watching. And listening, and reading. And using your purchasing and communications history to hone algorithms that predict what you will buy and click on next.

Most Americans fear their privacy is eroding in all of those ways and more, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found. In an era of spreading surveillance cameras, cascading revelations about government's collection of domestic and international communications, and online advertising triggered by users' purchasing history, the survey said that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that business, government, social-media sites, and other groups are accessing their most personal information without their consent.

Although most Americans see many benefits in the ongoing communication revolution, the poll found a consistent current of concern about the costs to privacy that come with these advances. "It's a double-edged sword," said Dilek Ekerman, a Southern California-based college student who responded to the survey. "If we do give out our information, there's the risk of it not being used properly. If you don't, it's hard to get services."

That ambivalence is crystallized in the survey's finding that a majority of adults believe the explosive increase in data available to business, law enforcement, and government is a more negative than positive development. Likewise, Internet users split in half on whether social-media networks mostly create opportunities for connection or increase risks of unwanted disclosures, according to the poll.

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On many of these questions, young people take a more benign view of the changes than their elders. On many questions, people with a college education are also more likely to see a net benefit from the new communications opportunities than are those without degrees. And in some cases, such as the expanded use of surveillance cameras, the survey said that most Americans were willing to sacrifice privacy to advance other goals, such as enhancing security.

But the belief that a wide variety of institutions (including government, business, Internet and cell-phone providers, financial institutions, social-media sites, and the media) are collecting a broad array of information that individuals would rather keep secret (from cell-phone and financial records to medical and shopping histories) transcends almost all generational and demographic lines. Those findings are somewhat buffered by evidence in the poll that most Americans still trust many large institutions to use information about them responsibly, with employers, strikingly, topping the list. Yet a solid majority of those surveyed said they are more "concerned" than "comfortable" about "the amount of information about [them] that can be collected and used."

In all these ways, the survey found Americans teetering between anticipation and anxiety as they sort through the implications of the brave new world of communications, connectivity, and surveillance. Just as revealing, follow-up interviews with respondents discovered that many people feel as if they have no real opportunity to personally determine whether the benefits of the new communications world justify the cost. Because few see opting out of the Internet and connectivity revolution as a real option, many of those interviewed project the sense that the erosion of privacy is another broad trend, like the decline of employment security, that is being imposed on average Americans by forces beyond their control. In that way, these new findings strongly echo perhaps the central chord in the previous 16 surveys: the widespread belief among Americans that they are "paddling alone" without support from any institution as they navigate the turbulence of modern life. "You want [these] services because they are useful," said Anirudh Kannan, an information-security specialist in Baltimore who responded to the poll, "but you have to pay the price that maybe someone could use that information about you legally or illegally."


The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 17th in a series examining how typical Americans are navigating the changing economy. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phone from May 29 through June 2. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting's strategic-communications practice and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The poll, which examined attitudes toward privacy and the economic and security implications of rapidly developing communications technology, was completed before the latest revelations about the federal government's collection of phone and Internet communications from Verizon and other major providers.

Like other surveys, the poll documents how thoroughly new technologies have suffused American life. Fully 87 percent of adults say they use the Internet at least occasionally. That number includes 99 percent of adults ages 18 to 29, and 97 percent of those in their 30s; usage declines slightly up the age ladder, but, even so, 84 percent of people in their 50s and about three-fifths of those over 65 say they use it. About four-fifths of Internet users say they have used social media in the last month, with Facebook (at 65 percent) far outstripping the next closest options (Google+ at 23 percent and Twitter at 18 percent).

Americans overwhelmingly believe the emergence of these new technologies has diminished their control over their personal information. Just 5 percent of those surveyed say they believe they have a "great deal" of control over the information collected about them by government, business, and other groups, and only another 29 percent believe they have even "some" control. Far more say they have "not very much" control (37 percent) or "none at all" (28 percent.) On this question, the generational divide is stark, with 48 percent of those under 30, compared with just 29 percent of those over 50, believing they have at least some control. Still, even a slight majority of young people believe they have little control over information about themselves. "You have to assume that the information you generate when you do a search is being collected," Kannan said. "You don't really have that much control over your personal information sometimes."

Americans aren't much more optimistic about their ability to fix incorrect information being held about them or to "remove unwanted information" entirely. Only 6 percent said they had a "great deal" of confidence they could make such corrections, while 32 percent expressed "some" confidence. Once again, the much larger group (59 percent) said they had not very much or no confidence at all that they could implement such changes. On this, the generational divide was substantial as well, with almost half of those under 30 expressing confidence and more than three-fifths of those older than 50 evincing doubt.


Americans see some clear benefits in the accumulation of information about them by private and public institutions. The survey asked respondents how likely it was that they might receive any of a dozen positive results from the increase in data collection and the diffusion of communications technology. The benefits they believed they were most likely to receive clustered around the ideas of connection, information, and convenience.

The most commonly cited benefit, at 70 percent, was "more ability to stay in touch or reconnect with friends and relatives." Similarly, 56 percent said it was likely these changes would help them connect with people who share their interests. Large numbers also believed the new developments provided them better and more targeted shopping opportunities, with 69 percent citing "more personalized information" about products or services they might like, and 66 percent pointing to "access to lower prices on products and services you use most often." Debbie Matthews, a 51-year-old homemaker in Simi Valley, Calif., has found all these benefits: She researched health information during her daughter's pregnancy, shopped online for her new granddaughter, and enjoys Web-based social groups around her interests. "I quilt and I crochet and I'm starting to sew a little bit, and I like going on to see what other people have done," she said.

The final widely cited benefit was better access to information: 63 percent expect better information about "health risks," and 61 percent see greater access to news that could affect them. Sunbar Dhanaraj, an independent information-technology consultant in Beltsville, Md., who responded to the poll, said these benefits have become indispensable. "I shop on the Internet, I read reviews — what they feel about the product: That's a terrible, terrible advantage of the Internet," he said. "There's always some risk [to privacy] "¦ but I work in the Internet. I program in the Internet. I love the Internet for reading. If I need to fix something, I go to the Internet and learn it."

But respondents were much more closely divided, and even skeptical, about other potential benefits from the accumulation and sharing of data. A majority (57 percent) did say it was likely to offer "greater safety and security for the public," but 44 percent disagreed. And only 47 percent thought it likely these changes would mean greater safety and security for them personally. Likewise, fewer than half thought these changes would likely produce "more professional and business opportunities" (48 percent) or more employment opportunities (just 42 percent).

The age divide held on this question, too. Generally those under 50, and especially those under 30, were more likely than older adults to see benefits from the new technologies. College-educated respondents were somewhat more likely to see benefits than those with less education.


For all these benefits, Americans across generational, racial, and income lines see broad risks to their privacy in the rapidly evolving communications landscape. The poll found that most Americans believe that many kinds of information are subject to intrusion and that many different institutions are peeking into it.

One question elicited a remarkably broad sense that "businesses, government, individuals, and other groups" are accessing a wide array of sensitive personal information without consent. Even before last week's disclosures that the federal government had obtained massive amounts of Verizon phone records and collected torrents of data from online service providers, the survey found that Americans believe their cell-phone, e-mail, and other communications history is more likely to be accessed without their consent than any other form of private information. A stunning 85 percent of those polled said they believed it was likely (including 58 percent who said it was "very likely") that such information was being disclosed without their approval.

But 82 percent also said they believed their shopping and purchasing history was being shared without their consent. That number stood at 80 percent for personal financial information, 79 percent for Social Security number or home address, location, travel activity, and information about children; 77 percent for their political activities; 73 percent for personal health information; and 71 percent for personal pictures. Younger people, in contrast to their more benevolent responses on other questions, were as likely as older respondents, and sometimes more likely, to believe that others were obtaining unauthorized access to their information. Yolanda Randolph, a senior-care worker in Atlanta, spoke for many when she said she believed technology had advanced to a stage where all of these sources of information were vulnerable. "We've got cameras on the street watching us," she said. "So why [would they] not be able to get my health information — when I went to the doctor last? I think it's very easy to get."

Of these possible disclosures, the survey found that the largest number of Americans are concerned about unauthorized access to "identifiable information like your Social Security number and home address" (92 percent), information about their children and their personal financial activity (each at 88 percent), personal communications history (80 percent), and health records (76 percent). Interestingly, fewer respondents (54 percent) expressed concern about disclosure of their "political preferences and activities" than any other source of information.

Paralleling the sense that a wide array of information is vulnerable, the survey also found that lopsided majorities believe a diverse panorama of groups and institutions is collecting information about them without their knowledge. At the top of that list for unauthorized collection are cell-phone and Internet service providers (79 percent) — a number likely to be reinforced by the latest flap over government access to phone records and online communications. Also ranking high were financial institutions (78 percent); health insurance companies (75 percent); other insurance companies (74 percent); the Internal Revenue Service (73 percent); the government overall (also 73 percent); online retailers (71 percent); and social-media sites (70 percent). Those responding were less likely to believe that health care providers (59 percent), law enforcement (56 percent), the media (53 percent), and, above all, their employer (at 48 percent) were gathering information about them without their awareness. On this question, young people were generally as suspicious as older people, and even more likely to believe that their social-media providers were keeping tabs on them.

Another question asked respondents how often they believed these same institutions were using information about them without their knowledge. On this front, government was the most frequently cited culprit (with 75 percent saying they believed it used information about them without consent either very or somewhat often), followed once again by cell-phone and Internet providers (73 percent). Large numbers also cited social-media sites, financial institutions, and health insurance companies (all at 69 percent); other insurance companies (68 percent); online retailers (67 percent); and the IRS (65 percent). Somewhat smaller shares thought the media (58 percent), conventional retailers (56 percent), health care providers (54 percent), and law enforcement (53 percent) were using personal information without their knowledge. Employers again ranked best, with just 33 percent pointing to them. On almost all of these choices, young people were even more likely than their elders to suspect unauthorized use of information.

A final question in this sequence asked respondents whether they trusted these institutions "to responsibly use information about you." By far the most trusted sources were health care providers (80 percent), employers (79 percent), and law-enforcement agencies (71 percent). Strikingly, 41 percent expressed a "great deal" of trust in the way their employer uses information about them, more than for any other institution tested. "You know your employer: You know that there's a person there that you interact with," said Clark Passey, a retired aerospace worker in Joshua Tree, Calif. "Where you don't really know those other people very much."

The poll also found healthy levels of trust for the way personal information is used by conventional retailers (65 percent), financial institutions (63 percent), other insurers (63 percent), and health insurers (59 percent). The IRS received an equivocal rating (with 53 percent expressing trust). But only 48 percent said they trusted the government or cell-phone and Internet service providers to use personal information responsibly, with slightly more in each case saying they distrusted those institutions. (For each group, about one-third said they essentially had no trust in them to handle information.) Lagging even further were online retailers (just 44 percent trust), political parties and candidates (37 percent), and the media (29 percent.) Social-media sites scraped the very bottom of the list. Just 25 percent of those surveyed expressed even some confidence in the way these sites use information; nearly twice as many (46 percent) said they trusted such sites "not at all." (Only the media shared that much intense distrust.) Neither young people nor social-media users expressed significantly more trust in the sites than the public overall.


Taken together, these three questions offer a kind of trust index on privacy. We ranked the 14 institutions tested from most trusted (a value of 1) to least trusted (a value of 14) on the three measures: how frequently they obtained data; how often they used information without consent; and how much they were trusted to responsibly handle that information. Combining the results from those three lists found that employers stirred the fewest concerns, followed by law-enforcement agencies, health care providers, and conventional retailers. At the other end, cell-phone and Internet service providers generated the most unease, followed by the government, social-media sites, and health insurance companies.

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Social-media and other Internet sites scored better on three questions relating to other aspects of access to information. Nearly three in five said they believed those sites had sufficient security policies to prevent others from hacking their information. Just over half of parents with children under 18 said they believed they had at least some control over the way social-media and other Internet sites shared information about their children. And just under half of all Internet users expressed similar confidence about the sharing of their own information. But even so, a 51 percent majority of those polled said they had little or no control over the way that information is used. The generational pattern resurfaced on this question, with young people much more confident than older respondents about their ability to control the use of such information.

Poll respondents, by far, picked identity theft (at 57 percent) as the greatest risk presented by the increasing collection and use of personal information, followed distantly by unauthorized release of their bank or credit-card information (18 percent) or safety risks from the disclosure of their location (7 percent). Only 3 percent worried most that disclosures could produce unfair treatment by their employer. Substantial minorities of adults reported they had already encountered such data-related risks: 37 percent said someone had made a fraudulent purchase with their information; 25 percent said someone had shared their location or picture without their permission; 15 percent said someone had stolen their identity; and 9 percent said they been harassed or bullied online. (By comparison with more traditional challenges, 33 percent said they have been the victim of a crime and 14 percent said they have been audited by the IRS.)

Solid majorities in the survey said they had taken such commonsense steps to secure their privacy as using and tightening privacy settings on social-media sites or buying software to protect their personal information. But only about one-third had taken more stringent steps such as unlisting their phone numbers or disabling tracking functions in their phonÃŽe or car. Only about one in five said they had avoided the Internet altogether — and even that probably overstates the number of Americans who consider Internet abstinence a plausible strategy, given that on a separate question closer to nine in 10 respondents said they use it regularly.


So with these risks on one ledger, and the benefits such as connecting with friends and accessing useful information on the other, what is Americans' overall verdict on the cascading communications revolution?

The poll found overwhelming consensus on the direction of change. Fully 90 percent of those surveyed believe that compared with previous generations they have "less privacy when it comes to [their] personal information." Even slightly more (93 percent) believe the next generation will have still less privacy.

Respondents expressed much greater ambivalence about the desirability of that change. On several measures, the needle points toward worry, but with important currents that may suggest growing acceptance, if not approval, of receding privacy. Overall, a solid 55 percent majority say they are "concerned" about the "amount and type of information ... about [them] that can be collected and used." Only 43 percent said they are comfortable with that collection. But the results suggest a generational shift toward greater acceptance: 55 percent of those under 30 are comfortable with the information available about them, but nearly two-thirds of those older than 50 are not.

Two broader questions opened a somewhat similar divide. One asked Internet users to balance the opportunities created by social media and other online services against the privacy risks. The result produced an even 47 percent to 47 percent split between those who agreed that "being able to connect with people all over the world and access information on just about any subject is worth the potential privacy trade-offs" and those who said "the ease of communicating and locating information online has made it too easy for personal information to be shared and is not worth the risks." But on this question again, the generational arrow tilts toward growing acceptance: While 55 percent of those over 50 see mostly risks, 54 percent of those under 30 bend toward the benefits.

The broadest question asked all respondents to assess the impact of the overall accumulation of "information about people "¦ by businesses, law enforcement, government, individuals, and other groups." Just 38 percent said "the collection and use of this information" was "mostly positive" because it can result in better decisions about the economy, allow businesses to grow, and improve public safety. A solid 55 percent majority said it was "mostly negative" because this information "can be collected and used in a way that can risk personal privacy, peoples' safety, financial security, and individual liberties." Respondents over 50, by 2-to-1, picked the negative response. Young people once again showed less unease; but in contrast to these other summary questions, a narrow 50 percent to 46 percent majority of that group still chose the negative response. That suggests generational change alone isn't likely to end the debate over the tensions between privacy and other goals, from enhancing national security to accelerating communication.

On several of the trade-offs now facing policymakers, the survey found strong opinions, although not in a direction that consistently elevated privacy over other goals. For instance, a solid majority (62 percent to 33 percent) said they supported the increased use of private and public security cameras despite concerns that "they are overly intrusive into the lives and behaviors of law-abiding citizens." When asked what changes they would accept to "improve national security," a 44 percent plurality said they would support more "camera surveillance of public places," and 16 percent said they would back "increased censorship of websites and less freedom to access sources on the Internet." But only 10 percent preferred "expanded government monitoring of cell-phone and e-mail activities," and a solid 42 percent said they would not support any of those options.

Respondents also bent toward privacy by a resounding 88 percent to 8 percent when asked if Washington should pass legislation requiring companies operating online to permanently delete all information about an individual who requests them to do so.

And yet the poll suggests that Americans — perhaps not surprisingly, given the continued revelations of government information sweeps — are not looking first toward Washington as the protector of their privacy. Asked what would do the most to protect people's personal information on the Internet, just 8 percent picked more government oversight. The biggest group (48 percent) said the key was "more commitment by companies to not share users' information with other businesses or government." A substantial 40 percent said the most effective response would be "more careful behavior by Internet users."

Like other assessments of public opinion in recent years, this survey suggests the debate over the threats to privacy from public and private sources could take one of two paths. On one side, the poll shows a widespread sense that many of the currents of modern life are eroding privacy, much as a river cuts through a rock. That sentiment potentially could build a larger audience for the critics, mostly clustered on the vanguards of the Right and the Left (from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange), inveighing against greater intrusions.

But the poll also shows that Americans see offsetting benefits (from enhanced security to improved communications and shopping) in many of the technological trends that provoke those fears. As important, the survey frequently finds young people more willing than their elders to accept these trade-offs. And both the poll results and follow-up interviews suggest that many Americans believe more connection will unavoidably mean less privacy, whether they like it or not. "I don't think there's anything we can do to change it," said Denise Gumminger, a 52-year-old medical technician in Kansas City, Kan. "It is the technology age."