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Americans Say They've Lost Control of Their Privacy -- Again

A new poll shows that Americans are worried about how companies and governments collect and use their personal information.


A significant majority of Americans say that they feel they have lost control over the personal information that is collected by companies, and worry about sharing personal information on social media sites and messaging services and in email and text messages.

The findings come from the Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of 607 American adults. The survey demonstrates in pretty stark terms how concerned people have become in the last year amid disclosures about spying programs by the National Security Agency and repeated breaches of corporate computer systems that store payment and other personal data.

Among the findings is a significant lack of confidence for several everyday communications tools used to convey personal information: 81 percent say they feel “not very” or “not at all secure” in using a social media site like Facebook to share personal information with a trusted person or organization. But those numbers shrink correspondingly with the age of the technology in question. For instance, 68 percent of people felt the same way about chat and instant messaging while 57 percent worried about using email. Only about a third — 31 percent — worried they couldn’t trust a land-line telephone.

Concerns about surveillance by the government also played into their worries. Seventy percent of people surveyed said they worried that government agencies might access and track personal information about them on social networking sites. Eighty percent agreed that Americans should be worried about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications. Yet they also agreed that the government should play a more active role in regulating what information companies do with their personal information.

By and large, the survey results amount to no big shock. Americans have always worried about their privacy in theory. Yet over time you find that what they say about it and what they do about it are often at opposing ends of a spectrum. Ask them and they’ll be “worried.” Watch what they do, and they’ll give up their privacy several times a day, posting pictures and status updates of where they’ve been, what they’ve done and who they’ve been with.

In 2003 — before Facebook and well before Edward Snowden — a Harris Poll picked up on this tendency. Nearly two-thirds of that survey group was willing to allow access to personal information in cases where they saw “tangible benefits” for doing so.

Back then, a majority of adults felt they had “lost all control” over how companies collect and use their personal information, though at the time there was a higher degree of confidence in existing laws to protect them. At least that much has changed.

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