What Americans Think About Privacy

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Big Brother is watching. What will you do?

Perhaps turn and run is a feasible option, a last-ditch effort to gain new ground while casting all precious personal information over the shoulder. Or maybe there’s still a way to hold onto the bread crumb trails of data that inevitably trace back to our digital selves. All of those Amazon purchases, revealing Facebook posts, late-night and bleary-eyed clicks through walls of advertisements… perhaps we can rein these little decisions back in and reclaim the privacy we once knew.

It turns out that neither of these options are the prevailing mode of thought that most Americans share when it comes to their online privacy. People have already accepted the extent to which they are being monitored. The question instead is not whether to fight it, but rather, how to live with it.

This pronounced shift in the country’s collective attitude towards cyber security revealed itself through a two-and-a-half year study conducted by the Pew Research Center—a non-partisan think-tank based out of Washington, D.C. BTR took the time to sit down with Lee Rainie, Director of Internet Science and Technology Research at Pew, to discuss the implications of these findings.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): After the 2013 leaks from government contractor Edward Snowden, you and researchers at Pew began a two-and-a-half year study into how Americans view their personal privacy. Did you have any personal expectations about what you might discover before going into this?

Lee Rainie (LR): Yeah, we had a strategy going into this round of research, in part because we were going to do an insane amount of work. Rather than doing it infrequently and episodically, we really concentrated on it for about two-and-a-half years. We knew that there had not been much research that delved deeply into the kinds of choices people make in-the-moment—about whether to share information or stay private.

We know from our previous surveys, generally Americans think privacy is an important value in their life and it’s something that they care about. In practice, however, as they live their lives with their credit cards and their EZPasses and their browsing behaviors, they share a lot of information. Sometimes it’s knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. But there is a disjuncture between their values and the amount of information that passes away from them to other parties as they live their lives. We wanted to get closer to that decision-making process, which is exactly what we did with the survey that was released a few weeks ago.

BTR: Looking at the latest data, it seems that Americans no longer view privacy as a condition of American life as they once did, but rather something that can be purchased.

LR: Yeah, it’s a commodity. The very, very traditional notion about American privacy is the classic line, “I want to be left alone, and I have the right to be left alone.” But then the 21st century updated that idea, which is, “I want to control my identity and my data.”

When we did both surveys and focus groups, a lot of people were very conscious that data about them was being captured, a lot times with their consent. So it’s not so much being left alone, people just want to be sure who’s collecting the data, why it’s being collected, what’s going to happen with the data after it is collected, and how long it’s going to be retained.

The conditions of privacy, in terms of the American judgement about it, are shifting, and that’s really interesting to capture now. I think you picked it up nicely; it’s gone from being a condition. Before, Americans weren’t being observed for most of their lives. Now it’s something that they have to work hard to retain–and in many cases pay for to retain.

BTR: In regards to that large majority who are conscious of this—there are 91 percent of American adults who agree that we’ve lost control as consumers over protecting our information from companies. But what percentage of these people actually felt worried about this?

LR: It’s a fair share. A good number of people when we ask about that, say, “I don’t have anything to hide,” and, “I don’t particularly care.” They’re aware that they receive little bargains of convenience, or little discounts with their shopping behaviors, or they get something else in return for it. In the context of government surveillance programs, a lot of times Americans are comfortable with the bargain [that they] get more safety in return for being placed under surveillance. So it’s never really a straight-on, up-or-down condition—“I want all privacy all the time,” or, “I give up everything about me all the time.”

Americans want the capacity to adjust the dial; sometimes they are willing to share, sometimes they’re not. But what freaks them out is this notion that they don’t know anymore exactly what’s happening to their data once it’s captured.

BTR: Right, and there also seems to be a consistent lack of faith in the integrity of everyday communication channels. What do you think might be some of the implications behind this lack of trust?

LR: Well, the huge implication of course is that Americans will potentially—maybe even eventually—revolt against data capture. If they don’t think that the institutions, the retail stores, the government, their ISPs, Internet providers, and their cable providers are protective of their data, there might come a time when they will rise up and say, “No more sharing!” or, “I’m not going to consent to this.”

That’s an enormous implication for how the web economy runs, because it’s built on data sharing in return for advertising. You get free email services, free search engines, and free access to lots of websites in return for them being free to advertise to you. That whole business model might fall apart if Americans become too concerned about the ways in which the companies are capturing their data, but more importantly, how vulnerable their data is once it’s in somebody else’s hands.

BTR: For these Americans that are making decisions about whether or not to share their information in exchange for a product online, what are some of the circumstances that matter most to them? What would they consider before sharing?

LR: There are a couple of things. Obviously the starting point is the terms of the deal itself. The company or the government is asking for access of information in return for something of value—maybe a discount, maybe access to information on the web, maybe benefits of one kind or another—so that’s the first thing that’s on American’s minds when they’re being asked to think about a tradeoff.

The second thing is they’re trying to calibrate what it would mean to their lives. Some people are very comfortable sharing their health information; sometimes they’re not comfortable sharing their health information. It changes, sometimes very rapidly in people’s lives. If they get sick, they’re okay with more people knowing what’s going on with them because they think that might help with their care.

A big thing for Americans now, a new thing that’s part of the privacy environment for people, is what happens to the data after it’s collected. As I said, the original interaction makes a lot of sense to Americans—I’ll give up some information if I get that bargain or I get that coupon or I get that content that I want—but what happens afterward? How is it assembled in databases, what kind of profiling is done of me, how does the scoring of me in those profiles relate to things like my credit rating, or my capacity to get insurance, or even my capacity to get a job? This new element of information being collected and reassembled matters a lot to Americans.

BTR: We often think of the internet as a vast wasteland for data; we send information into the abyss and it becomes buried by the burgeoning and incessant production of more and more data. But all of that personal information is still out there…

LR: Exactly. It’s not just who has the data, or where it is, but how long it’s held onto. That’s a big new thing that we picked up on our findings: how long data is retained is a very essential part of Americans’ calculation. They don’t like it in other people’s hands very long. I think most Americans would be much more comfortable if the data was kept for a reasonable amount of time to make sure the transactions were okay, and make sure the records were still on file, but after awhile, as it become less relevant, let it be stripped from the servers.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it works.

To hear the rest of our interview with Lee Rainie, tune into this Thursday’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.