When it comes to personal data and privacy, Americans do not trust the government, do not trust corporations, and do not think that any modern digital forum is safe from the exploitation or interference of either. That, at least, is the upshot of a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center. The problem, of course, is that Americans do not want to go without the digital devices and services that now are part of the rhythms of everyday life, and those devices and services need personal data. It is an increasingly fertile environment for legislative and regulatory change. It is also a potentially hostile jury pool for companies fighting allegations of privacy and data violations in the court system.
According to the study, 80% of surveyed adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications, and 80% also said they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing their personal data on social media sites. An overwhelming 91% of surveyed adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies.
The Pew study connects the rising concern over personal data and privacy in part to public revelations that came from the Edward Snowden scandal in 2013, which revealed details of government surveillance of American and international phone and e-mail records. The study shows that Americans who were aware of the Snowden controversy were substantially more likely to be aware of their own digital footprints and be concerned about government and corporate use of their data.
In particular, the Pew study shows that Americans are concerned about certain categories of their personal data, with personal identification information such as social security numbers chief among those concerns. The overwhelming majority of adults also responded that they considered their health information, their physical locations over time, and their e-mail and phone records to be sensitive to very sensitive information.
The study also found that Americans’ concern about security of personal data increased in step with higher levels of income and education. Some privacy concerns, however, seemed to transcend demographic categories. For instance, adults of all ages and genders were more likely than not to rank their health information as “very sensitive.”
All of this portends that legislative and regulatory change may be in the air. Significantly, the Pew study found that 64% of adults surveyed thought the government should do more to regulate advertisers’ use of consumer personal data, compared with only 34% of those who thought the government should not get involved. The study notes that since the Snowden scandal in 2013, there have been nearly 1,000 English language news articles and 395 current pieces of legislation in the 113th Congress that mention “privacy.” Notably, the White House released its specially commissioned report on “big data” and consumer privacy in May 2014.
Time will tell whether Americans’ rising frustration over control of their personal data will bear fruit in the political and legal sectors. Companies would do well to stay ahead of the trend and begin working now to ensure their data and privacy security practices are in compliance with current regulations as well as customer expectations.