What does it look like when a society loses its sense of privacy?
In the almost 18 months since the Snowden files first received coverage, writers and critics have had to guess at the answer. Does a certain trend, consumer complaint, or popular product epitomize some larger shift? Is trust in tech companies eroding—or is a subset just especially vocal about it?
Polling would make those answers clear, but polling so far has been… confused. A new study, conducted by the Pew Internet Project last January and released last week, helps make the average American’s view of his or her privacy a little clearer.
And their confidence in their own privacy is ... low.
The study's findings—and the statistics it reports—stagger. Vast majorities of Americans are uncomfortable with how the government uses their data, how private companies use and distribute their data, and what the government does to regulate those companies.
No summary can equal a recounting of the findings. Americans are displeased with government surveillance en masse:
- According to the study, 70 percent of Americans are “at least somewhat concerned” with the government secretly obtaining information they post to social networking sites.
- Eighty percent of respondents agreed that “Americans should be concerned” with government surveillance of telephones and the web.
They are also uncomfortable with how private corporations use their data:
- Ninety-one percent of Americans believe that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies,” according to the study.
- Eighty percent of Americans who use social networks “say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.”
And even though they’re squeamish about the government’s use of data, they want it to regulate tech companies and data brokers more strictly: 64 percent wanted the government to do more to regulate private data collection.
Since June 2013, American politicians and corporate leaders have fretted over how much the leaks would cost U.S. businesses abroad.
“It’s clear the global community of Internet users doesn’t like to be caught up in the American surveillance dragnet,” Senator Ron Wyden said last month.
At the same event, Google chairman Eric Schmidt agreed with him. “What occurred was a loss of trust between America and other countries,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It's making it very difficult for American firms to do business.”
But never mind the world. Americans don’t trust American social networks. More than half of the poll’s respondents said that social networks were “not at all secure. Only 40 percent of Americans believe email or texting is at least “somewhat” secure.
Indeed, Americans trusted most of all communication technologies where some protections has been enshrined into the law (though the report didn’t ask about snail mail). That is: Talking on the telephone, whether on a landline or cell phone, is the only kind of communication that a majority of adults believe to be “very secure” or “somewhat secure.”
(That may seem a bit incongruous, because making a telephone call is one area where you can be almost sure you are being surveilled: The government has requisitioned mass call records from phone companies since 2001. But Americans appear, when discussing security, to differentiate between the contents of the call and data about it.)
Last month, Ramsey Homsany, the general counsel of Dropbox, said that one big thing could take down the California tech scene.
“We have built this incredible economic engine in this region of the country,” said Homsany in the Los Angeles Times, “and [mistrust] is the one thing that starts to rot it from the inside out.”
According to this poll, the mistrust has already begun corroding—and is already, in fact, well advanced. We’ve always assumed that the great hurt to American business will come globally—that citizens of other nations will stop using tech companies’s services. But the new Pew data shows that Americans suspect American businesses just as much. And while, unlike citizens of other nations, they may not have other places to turn, they may stop putting sensitive or delicate information online.