The recently released Pew Research Center report “Americans and Privacy: Concerned, Confused and Feeling Lack of Control Over Their Personal Information” may create an unwanted feeling of uneasiness. It indicates that a “majority of Americans believe their online and offline activities are being tracked and monitored by companies and the government with some regularity.”
And 60 percent of surveyed adults “do not think it is possible to go through daily life without having data collected about them by companies or the government.”
This study reflects a sense of anxiety about having little or no control over how these entities are using our personal information. Little wonder that in state capitals and on Capitol Hill alike, both Democratic and Republican legislators are searching for government solutions to address this issue. Tech companies, such as Amazon and Facebook, also are echoing a need for new laws that better protect personal information that is collected and disseminated online, then stored in a cloud with endless capacity. But these developments tell only part of the story.
Another seminal study is the EMC Privacy Index, developed in 2014 by the data storage company that now is part of the technology giant Dell. That report found the vast majority of respondents in all surveyed countries, including the United States, indicated that they value the benefit of “easier access to information and knowledge” that digital technology affords. Yet 81 percent back then also expected privacy to erode over the next five years, which is what the Pew Center research has confirmed in 2019. Today, Pew found that 70 percent of U.S. adults think that their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago.
The EMC Privacy Index’s most impactful finding was that although people worldwide are using digital technology at a high rate, far fewer (only 45 percent) indicated they were willing to give up ANY of their privacy in exchange for the ability to keep receiving these benefits. This “We Want It All” privacy paradox applies to everyday activities such as searching for nearby stores by enabling geo-location and critical citizen benefits such as protection from terrorists and/or criminals.
How much are we still guided by this behavioral insight a half decade later? Here, the Pew Center research suggests that we may have tipped the balance in the other direction — 81 percent of survey respondents indicated that the potential risks of data collection by companies now outweigh the potential benefits, with 66 percent noting the risks outweigh the benefits of government data collection. But a majority also appreciates that online ads based on their personal data mirror their interests and characteristics.
On balance, it seems that we still want it all online — extensive technical capabilities and service offerings along with rich privacy protection. That dissonance is one we all must think about individually as we decide what to click on, where and how often, and what to upload, download or send to others in social media postings.
Although there may be a general sense that control has been lost, increasing attention should be focused on our choices to engage or disconnect, which can help shape the online marketplace. We also are not talking about why we are less concerned, as the Pew Center survey shows, about how government is using our information instead of companies. Why is this so?
Let’s also explore how we can pursue behaviors that protect the data we are sharing (better passwords and more frequent changes, anyone?). Legal mechanisms for improving digital privacy protection should remain top of mind for policymakers, but any new laws need to account for how willing the public will be in protecting their own online data when they can.
No statute or government agency will be able to impose this important element collectively.