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Snowden Leaks Have Changed How Americans See Their Privacy

A new Pew Research survey spells out how the some Americans have changed what they do online after Snowden.

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The revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have started to affect how Americans view their right to privacy and the actions they take to try to protect it, a new survey has found.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly one-third of American adults have taken steps to protect their information from government surveillance programs that monitor phone and digital communications.

More than one-fifth — 22 percent — say they have changed their use of various technology tools “a great deal” or “somewhat” since first learning about the Snowden leaks, which began in 2013.

The survey also found that most Americans — 87 percent — have heard about the surveillance programs. And a majority — 57 percent — say it’s unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens, while roughly the same percentage — 54 percent — say it’s acceptable to monitor the communications of people from other countries.

The Pew Center’s Internet, Science and Technology research unit surveyed 475 adults who are members of the GfK Knowledge Panel between late November and early January. (GfK is a big consumer research company.) It also conducted a series of six focus groups with 59 adults during December and January.

What’s interesting is how people said they had changed their behavior. For instance, 18 percent of those surveyed said they’ve changed how they use email “a great deal,” while another 17 percent said that since the Snowden disclosures, they’ve changed how they use search engines. Another 15 percent have changed both the way they use Twitter and Facebook and their mobile phones habits. Forty-one percent of those in the survey group said they had changed at least one activity since learning about the Snowden leaks. And even more interestingly, the reaction was consistent across political party lines.

The survey doesn’t get specific about what actions the respondents took to protect their privacy, but there’s some evidence about what they haven’t done: Taken steps to make it much more technically difficult for the government to read their email or watch which websites they visit. For instance, 46 percent had not adopted or had not even considered adopting email encryption technology like PGP or GPG. Another 40 percent haven’t bothered to try Tor, the anonymous browsing tool, and at least 39 percent didn’t even know what it is.

Snowden’s disclosures began in 2013 with the revelation of a program called PRISM, which, according to slides from once-classified presentations, focused on the collection of communications data from several Internet companies. The disclosures triggered a long and still unresolved debate in Washington and Silicon Valley about the nature of consumer data privacy and the role Internet companies play in protecting it.

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