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Not surprisingly, Americans feel that their privacy is being threatened on all sides, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center that found consumers fearing for the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality.

Perhaps most striking is Americans’ lack of confidence that they have control over their personal information. That pervasive concern applies to everyday communications channels and to the collectors of their information — both in the government and in corporations. For example:

  • 91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.
  • 88% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.
  • 80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.
  • 70% of social networking site users say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.

Yet, even as Americans express concern about government access to their data, they feel that government could do more to regulate what advertisers do with their personal information:

  • 80% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications. Just 18% “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with that notion.
  • 64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.
  • Only 36% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online.”

Online services

When it comes to more commercial considerations, consumers are skeptical about the supposed benefits of personal data sharing, but are willing to make tradeoffs in certain circumstances when their sharing of information provides access to free services.

  • 61% of adults “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement: “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data.”
  • At the same time, 55% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free.”

The public feels most secure using landline phones, least secure on social media.

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Across the board, there is a universal lack of confidence among adults in the security of everyday communications channels — particularly when it comes to the use of online tools. 

  • 81% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using social media sites when they want to share private information with another trusted person or organization.
  • 68% feel insecure using chat or instant messages to share private information.
  • 58% feel insecure sending private info via text messages.
  • 57% feel insecure sending private information via email.
  • 46% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” calling on their cell phone when they want to share private information.
  • 31% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using a landline phone when they want to share private information.

Americans’ lack of confidence in core communications channels tracks closely with how much they have heard about government surveillance programs. For five out of the six communications channels we asked about, those who have heard “a lot” about government surveillance are significantly more likely than those who have heard just “a little” or “nothing at all” to consider the method to be “not at all secure” for sharing private information with another trusted person or organization.

Most say they want to do more to protect their privacy, but many believe it is not possible to be anonymous online.


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