Survey: Most Americans Feel Data Tracking is Out of Control and Privacy Nonexistent

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A majority of Americans believe their online and offline activities are being tracked and monitored by companies and the government with some regularity, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults.  (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

With each passing year, more and more companies — and governments—  are tracking us for a wide range of reasons. Not surprisingly, six in 10 U.S. adults surveyed last June reported feeling like they’re being watched all the time.

"They are not convinced that the benefits of tracking outweigh the risks of tracking, and they are feeling that they don’t have very much control over what is happening to them," said Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.

The online survey of 4,272 people also found that distress over the lack of data privacy is bi-partisan.

"There aren't dramatic differences between Republicans and Democrats," Rainie said. "That's a big story in a time when much of the rest of culture and politics has become polarized."

From a Pew Research Center survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points. (Courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

That said, there is widespread disagreement about how government could or should address the problem. This survey did not ask about specific regulatory responses ranging from the conceptual, like establishing a new federal agency proposed by Silicon Valley Congresswomen Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, to the already enacted, like the California Consumer Privacy Act that takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.

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Seventy percent of those polled said they believe their data is less secure than it was five years ago.

"Clearly, this data shows that Americans are anxious for more to be done and more clarity to be established in how data is captured and used. Yet, the hard, gritty details are something that partisans can fight about," Rainie said.

"But, if you give them a choice, do you think it would mostly be a better solution to have more technology tools or other initiatives in your own hands? Or, do you think to have the government be more empowered to do things? Fifty-five percent said they would rather have the tools," he added.

From a Pew survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points. (Courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

That’s even though 79% of people surveyed are not confident companies will take responsibility for misusing consumers’ data, and three out of four Americans told Pew they are not confident that companies' mistakes will be held accountable by the government.

The nation's top privacy watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission, established a $5 billion settlement with Facebook earlier this year over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as a $170 million settlement with Google and YouTube over collecting the personal information of children.

But critics say the federal government isn't doing enough, including some within the federal government. Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter, both Democratic appointments to the FTC, have said the Facebook settlement in particular should have held company executives personally liable. No federal data privacy legislation has managed to garner enough bi-partisan support to make it to the President's desk.

From a Pew survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.
From a Pew survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points. (Courtesy of the Pew Research Center)

From a business perspective, the vast array of companies that track and buy data express much more concern about GDPR, the European Union directive on data protection, than anything happening in the United States.

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In the meantime, Americans continue to expand our online profiles.

"There is natural tension between data utility and privacy protection, and this will only get more severe as we progress in a data-driven economy," said Dawn Song, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley.  "Traditionally, there has been very little transparency and user control on how users' data is used. With a growing number of major public data breaches and an increased focus on business models that depend on user data, it’s no wonder that more and more consumers are anxious about how their data is being used.

"It's one of the big paradoxes of American life, that Americans say they are very interested in being private, and yet in their day-to-day lives, they don't necessarily act as if privacy matters most to them," Rainie said.

He continued, "When you press them about that, you get a couple of answers. First is, they're confused about what's going on, how the data are used. They also say that it's pretty hard to live modern life without many of these tools. They don't feel it's a live option to them to be able to withdraw from the systems of monitoring and tracking that they know are taking place."