Privacy. What comes to mind for you when you hear that word? Safety? Security? A fundamental right? According to a new survey by Pew Research Internet Project, when Americans are asked what comes to mind when they hear the word “privacy,” there are patterns to their answers. Americans give great importance to the idea that privacy applies to personal material — their space, their “stuff,” their solitude, and, most important, their “rights.” Further, when responses are grouped into themes, the largest block of answers ties to concepts of security, safety, and protection. For many others, ideas such as “keeping things ‘hidden’” and secrecy are top of mind when thinking about privacy.
I’ve always held the opinion that due to my profession, and my heavy involvement with social media and other forms of digital communications (Internet, email, mobile phone, etc.), I have very little privacy. I have not felt (yet) that my rights have been violated and I’m keenly aware that my lack of privacy is primarily due to the fact that I’ve chosen to reveal many personal things about myself via social media and the Internet. Does this mean that I don’t do what I can to keep certain areas of my life as private as possible? No. Believe it or not, there are some parts of my life that I would like to remain private. However, in many cities you can’t even walk down the street these days without being on camera — not to mention being tracked every time you use a credit/ATM card, make a phone call or send an email. For all of these reasons, I feel like I have surrendered much of my privacy. For good or for bad. The important thing is that I’m aware of this. I haven’t been surprised (yet) when I’ve discovered that information I would have considered to be private 20 years ago is now readily available to the public. For these reasons, I don’t spend much time worrying about my privacy (yet). As it turns out, this is absolutely not the case for most Americans. As is evidenced by this survey. Now, let’s look at some of the results.
In my opinion the most distressing results of the survey had to do with Americans’ lack of confidence that they have control over their personal information. This great concern applies to everyday communications channels and to the collectors of their information—both in the government and in corporations. For example:
Yet, even as Americans express concern about government access to their data, they feel as though government could do more to regulate what advertisers do with their personal information:
In the commercial context, consumers are skeptical about some of the benefits of personal data sharing, but are willing to make tradeoffs in certain circumstances when their sharing of information provides access to free services.
I first discovered this survey through an article in The New York Times written by Claire Cain Miller. In the opening of her article she perfectly summarizes the “privacy paradox” that I highlight in the title of this post:
Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.
I highly recommend reading both The New York Times article and the full results of the survey. The most compelling fact that they reveal is that we have ourselves in quite a quandary with this aptly named “privacy paradox.” Essentially, we want all of the benefits of technology and digital communications but none of the privacy risks clearly associated with using them. To this point, while 91% surveyed agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected or used by companies, those same people are entirely unsure of what to do about it. Nearly two-thirds say they would like to do more to protect the privacy of their personal information online. About the same number think the government should do more to protect them. I’m not sure what the answer to this dilemma is for most Americans, except to be better educated as to the privacy risks associated with digital communications. Unfortunately, it seems like the only thing we have control over are our choices.
What does privacy mean to you and what steps have you taken to protect your personal information? I would welcome any feedback from readers via email and/or the comments section below. Based on your response(s) a follow-up post may be in order. Of course, you can also always find me on Twitter at @bobbbyg where I’m surrendering my privacy on a daily basis.