Stop Eavesdropping! Top 10 Beliefs About Digital Privacy In The US

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Over the past year, the Pew Research Center has surveyed people in the US on their views related to privacy, personal data, and digital surveillance. With the backdrop of the novel coronavirus, it seems as if people are concerned about digital privacy issues ranging from hacked video conferencing sessions to proposed government tracking of people’s cellphones and beyond.

As if fear of virus contagion isn’t enough, privacy and surveillance concerns are also scaring people in the US these days.

digital privacy
Photo by Carolyn Fortuna

Here are 10 key findings of the report, titled, “How Americans See Digital Privacy Issues amid the COVID-19 Outbreak.” The survey of US adults was conducted April 7 to 12, 2020.

#1. Cellphone Tracking

Do you think location tracking through cellphones will make a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19?

6 out of 10 respondents say that if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone, it wouldn’t make much of a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Fewer people said it would help a lot (16%) or help a little (22%).

#2. Tracking COVID-19 Positive People through Cellphones

Should the US government track people who have tested positive for COVID-19 through their cellphones?

Reactions are split. 52% say it would be at least somewhat acceptable for the government to use people’s cellphones to track the location of people who have tested positive for COVID-19; the rationale is that it would help the country to understand how the virus may be spreading. Another 48% find this practice to be at least somewhat unacceptable.

But, when asked if the government should use cellphones to track people’s locations as a way of making sure everyone is complying with social distancing recommendations, feelings are much more resistant. 62% say this is somewhat or very unacceptable, while just 37% say it is somewhat or very acceptable.

#3. Personal Data Security

Is your personal data less secure than it was 5 years ago?

Before the outbreak, respondents strongly believed their personal data was more vulnerable than in the past.

  • In a June 2019 survey, 70% of Americans said their personal information was less secure than it was 5 years earlier.
  • Just 6% of people who responded to the 2020 survey said their information was more secure than in the past, while 24% said their personal information was about as secure as it was 5 years earlier.

Experts have hypothesized that remote work data security could be threatened during the coronavirus outbreak. So too, would it be for regular folks who are spending more time online to adhere to stay-at-home state policies.

#4. How Companies or the Government Uses Personal Data

Do you understand what is being done with your data information?

Roughly 8-in-10 adults (79%) said they were at least somewhat concerned about how companies were using the data collected about them, while 64% said they were somewhat or very concerned about government collection of their personal data.

Yet relatively few said they understood a great deal what was being done with the data collected about them by companies (6%) or the government (4%).

#5. Tracking by Business

Do you believe you’re being digitally tracked by advertisers, tech firms, or other companies?

Over the past few weeks, public health professionals have discussed location tracking for the purposes of contact tracing and limiting the spread of COVID-19. A majority of respondents, about 7-in-10 (72%), believe that all, almost all, or most of what they do online or while using a cellphone is being tracked by companies. Moreover, nearly half (47%) said the government is tracking their online activities.

Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely than white adults to say they believe the government is tracking all, almost all, or most of their online activities.

#6. Who Benefits from Data Collection?

Do you think you benefits personally from the data companies or the government collects about you?

When it comes to data collection, respondents saw more risks than benefits. 72% said they benefited very little or not at all from the data collected about them by companie, and 76% didn’t see personal benefits from data collected by the government. A significant majority (81%) said potential risks of this kind of data collection outweighed the benefits, and 66% said so about data collected by the government. Even so, some experts of late have insisted that public health benefits of data collection related to the coronavirus outweigh the deficits.

#7. The Right to Have Medical Data Permanently Deleted

Do you want to have the right to delete medical data from online searches?

Respondents widely supported the “right to be forgotten” — or having mechanisms to remove personal information about themselves from public online searches or databases. About 7-in-10 (69%) said persons in the US should have the right to have health provider-collected medical data permanently deleted by the people or organizations who have that information.

Level of educational attainment made a difference in the demographics of this response. 77% of those with a college education or more said this should be a right for all Americans, compared with smaller shares of those with some college education (70%) or a high school diploma or less (61%).

#8. Degree of Understanding Privacy Laws and Regulations

How much do you comprehend about your data privacy rights?

6-in-10 respondents (63%) said they knew very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations currently in place to protect their data privacy; just 3% said they understood a great deal. Nonetheless, 3/4 of respondents agreed that more government regulation of what companies can do with their customers’ personal information should be the norm. Just 8% favored less regulation.

#9. The Dilemma of Products with Privacy Issues

Have you ever abandoned a product or service due to privacy concerns?

52% of Americans said they had decided not to use a product or service because they were worried about how much personal information would be collected about them. 1-in-5 said the products they decided not to use were websites, 11% mentioned electronics, 10% said social media, and another 10% indicated financial or health care services.

#10. Understanding Key Concepts about Digital Privacy and Data Collection

Are you able to define the commonly accepted terminology of digital topics?

Questions designed to test respondents’ knowledge of digital topics produced only 30% who knew that a URL with “https://” means the information entered on that site is encrypted. A similarly small share (28%) could accurately identify an example of two-factor authentication. Malicious online attacks and email scams that have accompanied COVID-19 could especially impact individuals in high-risk populations and those with lower levels of digital and financial literacy and cybersecurity knowledge.

If you’re interested in learning more about privacy issues, check out this fascinating YouTube video about algorithmic learning.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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