Americans Realize Big Brother Is Watching Them Online, But Don’t Know Why

Pew survey looks at data collection by government, companies

silhouette of hand and phone with an eye on the screen
In a recent survey, 70% of respondents said they believe their personal data is less secure than it was five years ago. Getty Images
Headshot of David Cohen

Big Brother is watching and adults in the U.S. know it, even if they don’t fully understand why, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

The think tank polled 4,272 U.S. adults and found that roughly 6 out of 10 do not believe it is possible to go through daily life without companies or the government collecting data about them.

Nearly half (47%) of respondents believe most of their online activities are tracked by the government. Most (73%) feel that all, almost all or most of what they do online or on their smartphones is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies. Nearly a fifth (19%) believe that at least some of what they do is being tracked.

Pew Research Center

“It is difficult to determine how much personal data the government collects and otherwise can access through private company records. Administrative government agencies like the IRS, Census Bureau, Postal Service and social welfare departments gather various personal details about people,” according to the Pew report.

A “not exhaustive” list of the massive amounts of data the government has access to includes:

  • tax- and employment-related information
  • physical attributes (government ID)
  • financial circumstances (benefits from social, housing and employment training programs)
  • health information (government health-insurance programs)
  • addresses
  • household composition
  • property ownership (houses or cars)
  • educational details (student loans or grants)

The think tank also noted that security organizations have wide-ranging authority as well. “With subpoenas or court orders and warrants, law enforcement organizations can typically access and monitor people’s phone and traffic records, health records (including genetic records), online and application browsing, search queries, texts and emails,” according to the report. “Users’ social media activities and their tech-based social networks are at least at times examined in investigations, according to ‘transparency reports’ released by the companies.”

Most respondents were aware of companies creating online personal data profiles for the purpose of serving them ads. Pew said 77% have heard or read at least a bit about personal data being used to offer targeted ads or special deals, or to assess how risky they may be as customers. Some 64% have seen ads or solicitations based on their personal data, and 61% of that group said those ads accurately reflected their interests and characteristics at least somewhat.

Americans are far from happy about all of this data collection, with 81% of respondents saying that the potential risks they face outweigh the benefits, and 66% saying the same about government data collection.

They are also concerned about how that data is being used by companies (79%) and the government (64%). However, the vast majority felt like they have little or no control over the data collected by the government (84%) and companies (81%).

Trust was sorely lacking, with 79% of respondents saying they were not too confident or not confident at all that companies would admit mistakes and take responsibility in the event of misused or compromised personal information, and 69% saying they were not confident that companies would use their personal information in ways they were comfortable with.

And these sentiments are only getting worse with time, as 70% of respondents believe their personal data is less secure than it was five years ago, while only 6% indicated the opposite.

“When it comes to privacy in the digital age, many Americans are concerned, confused and not fully convinced that the current systems of tracking and monitoring them bring more benefits than risk,” said Pew director of research for internet and technology Lee Rainie in a statement. “At the same time, some can conceive of circumstances where data use can be helpful, especially for achieving some broad societal benefits. As always, Americans’ views about privacy are complex and varied.”

'When it comes to privacy in the digital age, many Americans are concerned, confused and not fully convinced that the current systems of tracking and monitoring them bring more benefits than risk.'
Lee Rainie, director of research for internet and technology, Pew Research Center

Privacy policies and terms of service are meant to protect people from misuse of their data. Yet while 97% of Americans said they are asked to approve privacy policies every so often, just 9% said they always read those policies, and just 13% often do so; 38% sometimes read the policies, while 36% never do.

Even among those who read privacy policies before agreeing to their terms, just 22% admitted to reading them all the way through. Pew found a general lack of understanding about data collection and data privacy laws, saying 78% of respondents admitted to having little or no knowledge of what the government does with data it collects, while 59% said the same about companies. Just 6% said they understood a great deal about what companies do with data they collect, and that figure slipped to 4% for the government.

Likewise, 63% of Americans have little or no understanding of the laws and regulations that cover their privacy, with 33% having some understanding and just 3% saying they understood those laws a great deal.

However, respondents did concede that privacy exceptions can be made when the collected data is used constructively.

Pew said 49% approved of poorly performing schools sharing student data with nonprofit groups seeking to improve educational outcomes; 49% believe the government should collect data on Americans in order to assess potential terrorist threats; and 45% feel that it is acceptable for social network to monitor posts for signs of depression.


david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.
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