It's been more than a year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released documents showing the US government was collecting data on Americans. Since that time, online privacy has become a major issue and led many Americans to become concerned about the collection of their online data.
A recent Pew Research study found that 91 percent of Americans believe that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected. Another 80 percent of adults said Americans should be concerned about government monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications. This is the first in a series of studies Pew will conduct during the next year to record how people view privacy in the post-Snowden era.
"The findings of the survey suggest that there is widespread concern about government surveillance and an overall sense that consumers have lost control of the way their information is used," says Mary Madden, senior researcher for Pew. "At the same time, there's an overwhelming sense that consumers have lost control over the way their personal information is collected and used by companies."
Researches asked consumers what mode of communication they thought was most secure, whether through a landline, texting, mobile calls, e-mails, using chat, or social media sites. There wasn't one method that most respondents said was very secure. The most trusted was a landline, but only 16 percent of respondents said it was very secure.
"For a long time, people thought 'Well, I have nothing to hide,' " Sara Kiesler, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, told USA Today. "But now they know that's not in fact true. You do have things you want to hide. Whether it's your credit card information or what prescription drugs you take or your nephew's jail terms. People don't want their lives to be an open book."
The study found that the public feels least secure when using social media. Of those who responded, only 2 percent said they felt very secure using social media sites. Another 14 percent said it was somewhat secure. Because the public doesn't trust social media sites, consumers try to find ways to use sites anonymously. The survey found that 42 percent of people post online using pseudonyms so that they won't be associated with certain information. But millions of Americans continue to use social media sites even though they distrust them.
"We know that people are concerned about privacy but we also know that they don't think about it when they are sharing data on Facebook because we have to socialize," Bruce Schneier, a security expert, told BBC. "People give Google their data and share on Facebook. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. Google knows more about what you think about than any other company on Earth."
Though the public is pushing for online privacy, consumers are OK with some companies collecting data. The study found that 55 percent of respondents said they would not mind sharing some information with companies. Ms. Madden says that's because people feel comfortable giving companies personal information when they can control what information is given.
“Folks understand that in some instances, where they feel that they are in control of what information they share, it is a viable tradeoff [to use a site for free]," Madden says. But when it comes to taking control of what personal information is collected, "consumers feel overwhelmed. They don’t know where to start in taking steps to restrict the flow of [their personal] data."