Americans’ Attitudes About Privacy, Security and Surveillance (2023)

The cascade of reports following the June 2013 government surveillance revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have brought new attention to debates about how best to preserve Americans’ privacy in the digital age. At the same time, the public has been awash with news stories detailing security breaches at major retailers, health insurance companies and financial institutions. These events – and the doubts they inspired – have contributed to a cloud of personal “data insecurity” that now looms over many Americans’ daily decisions and activities. Some find these developments deeply troubling and want limits put in place, while others do not feel these issues affect them personally. Others believe that widespread monitoring can bring some societal benefits in safety and security or that innocent people should have “nothing to hide.”

Americans’ views about privacy and surveillance are relevant to policymaking on these matters. Key legal decisions about the legitimacy of surveillance or tracking programs have hinged on the question of whether Americans think it is reasonable in certain situations to assume that they will be under observation, or if they expect that their activities will not be monitored. A federal appeals court recently ruled that a National Security Agency program that collects Americans’ phone records is illegal. In striking down the program, Judge Gerald Lynch wrote: “Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans. Perhaps such a contraction is required by national security needs in the face of the dangers of contemporary domestic and international terrorism. But we would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language.”

Two new Pew Research Center surveys explore these issues and place them in the wider context of the tracking and profiling that occurs in commercial arenas. The surveys find that Americans feel privacy is important in their daily lives in a number of essential ways. Yet, they have a pervasive sense that they are under surveillance when in public and very few feel they have a great deal of control over the data that is collected about them and how it is used. Adding to earlier Pew Research reports that have documented low levels of trust in sectors that Americans associate with data collection and monitoring, the new findings show Americans also have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of the records that are maintained by a variety of institutions in the digital age.

While some Americans have taken modest steps to stem the tide of data collection, few have adopted advanced privacy-enhancing measures. However, majorities of Americans expect that a wide array of organizations should have limits on the length of time that they can retain records of their activities and communications. At the same time, Americans continue to express the belief that there should be greater limits on government surveillance programs. Additionally, they say it is important to preserve the ability to be anonymous for certain online activities.

Most Americans hold strong views about the importance of privacy in their everyday lives.

The majority of Americans believe it is important – often “very important” – that they be able to maintain privacy and confidentiality in commonplace activities of their lives. Most strikingly, these views are especially pronounced when it comes to knowing what information about them is being collected and who is doing the collecting. These feelings also extend to their wishes that they be able to maintain privacy in their homes, at work, during social gatherings, at times when they want to be alone and when they are moving around in public.

When they are asked to think about all of their daily interactions – both online and offline – and the extent to which certain privacy-related values are important to them, clear majorities say these dimensions are at least “somewhat important” and many express the view that these aspects of personal information control are “very important.”

(Video) The Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance - Professor Martyn Thomas CBE

Survey results from early 2015 show:

  • 93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important; 74% feel this is “very important,” while 19% say it is “somewhat important.”
  • 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important—65% think it is “very important” and 25% say it is “somewhat important.”

At the same time, Americans also value having the ability to share confidential matters with another trusted person. Nine-in-ten (93%) adults say this ability is important to them, with 72% saying it is “very important” and 21% saying it is “somewhat important.”

Permission and publicness are key features that influence views on surveillance.

Americans say they do not wish to be observed without their approval; 88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission (67% feel this is “very important” and 20% say it is “somewhat important”).

However, far fewer (63%) feel it is important to be able to “go around in public without always being identified.” Only 34% believe being able to go unnoticed in public is “very important” and 29% say it is “somewhat important” to them. In both cases, all adults, regardless of age or gender, express comparable views.

The findings above come from a survey conducted Jan. 27 to Feb. 16, 2015, among 461 adults on the GfK Knowledge Panel. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points. The findings cited below in the Summary section come from a separate survey of 498 adults on the same Knowledge Panel; that survey was conducted between Aug. 5 and Sept. 2, 2014, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

(Video) CPDP 2015: Citizens' attitudes to privacy, surveillance and security (1)

Americans have little confidence that their data will remain private and secure.

For all of the 11 entities we asked about in the fall 2014 survey – from government agencies to credit card companies to social media sites – only small minorities say they are “very confident” the records maintained by these organizations will remain private and secure.

  • Just 6% of adults say they are “very confident” that government agencies can keep their records private and secure, while another 25% say they are “somewhat confident.”
  • Only 6% of respondents say they are “very confident” that landline telephone companies will be able to protect their data and 25% say they are “somewhat confident” that the records of their activities will remain private and secure.
  • Credit card companies appear to instill a marginally higher level of confidence; 9% say they are “very confident” and 29% say they are “somewhat confident” their data will stay private and secure.

Online service providers are among the least trusted entities when it comes to keeping information private and secure. When asked about search engine providers, online video sites, social media sites and online advertisers, the majority felt “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that these entities could protect their data:

  • 76% of adults say they are “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that records of their activity maintained by the online advertisers who place ads on the websites they visit will remain private and secure.
  • 69% of adults say they are not confident that records of their activity maintained by the social media sites they use will remain private and secure.
  • 66% of adults say they are not confident that records of their activity maintained by search engine providers will remain private and secure.
  • 66% say they are not confident that records of their activity collected by the online video sites they use will remain private and secure.

Few feel they have “a lot” of control over how much information is collected about them in daily life and how it is used.

When asked how much control they feel they have over how much information is collected about them and how it is used in their everyday lives, only a small minority of Americans say they have “a lot” of control over their personal data collection and its use.

When thinking about a range of activities that might take place on a typical day, 9% say they feel they have “a lot” of control over how much information is collected about them and how it is used, while 38% say they have “some control.” Another 37% feel they have “not much control,” and 13% feel they personally have “no control at all” over the way their data is gathered and used.

A very small number say they have changed their behavior to avoid being tracked recently, but many were already engaged in more common or less technical privacy-enhancing measures.

At the time of the mid-2014 survey, the vast majority of respondents – 91% – had not made any changes to their internet or cellphone use to avoid having their activities tracked or noticed. Only 7% reported that they had made these kinds of changes in “recent months.”

(Video) The push for increased surveillance from fiction and its impact on privacy

At the same time, a much larger group had engaged in some everyday obfuscation tactics and privacy-enhancing measures. These activities were not necessarily in direct response to news of government monitoring programs, but, rather, represent a set of measures that respondents may have engaged in out of broader concerns about their personal info. Some of the more common activities include:

  • Clearing cookies or browser history (59% have done this).
  • Refusing to provide information about themselves that wasn’t relevant to a transaction (57% have done this).
  • Using a temporary username or email address (25% have done this).
  • Giving inaccurate or misleading information about themselves (24% have done this).
  • Deciding not to use a website because they asked for a real name (23% have done this).

Advanced measures, such as the use of proxy servers and encryption are less common.

This survey included somewhat more expansive questions about advanced privacy-enhancing measures such as the use of proxy servers, virtual private networks and encryption across a variety of communications channels, following up on findings reported earlier this year. However, even with comparatively broader language, just one-in-ten Americans said they had adopted these more sophisticated steps to shield their information:

  • 10% of adults say they have encrypted their phone calls, text messages or email.
  • 9% say they have used a service that allows them to browse the Web anonymously, such as a proxy server, Tor software, or a virtual personal network.

Most want limits on the length of time that records of their activity can be retained.

There is wide variation across the length of time that respondents feel is reasonable for businesses and other organizations to store their data. Additionally, there is considerable variance on their views depending on the kind of organization that retains the records of the activity. In general, and even though it may be necessary to provide certain functionality, people are less comfortable with online service providers – such as search engine providers and social media sites – storing records and archives of their activity.

  • 50% of adults think that online advertisers who place ads on the websites they visit should not save records or archives of their activity for any length of time.
  • 44% feel that the online video sites they use shouldn’t retain records of their activity.
  • 40% think that their search engine provider shouldn’t retain information about their activity.
  • 40% think that social media sites they use shouldn’t save data about their activity.

At the other end of the spectrum, the vast majority of adults are comfortable with the idea that credit card companies might retain records or archives of their activity. Just 13% think that credit card companies “shouldn’t save any information.”

Those who have greater awareness of the government monitoring programs are more likely to believe that certain records should not be saved for any length of time.

Those who have had the most exposure to information about the government surveillance programs also have some of the strongest views about data retention limits for certain kinds of organizations. These differences are particularly notable when considering social media sites. Among those who have heard “a lot” about the government collecting communications data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, 55% say that the social media sites they use should not save any information regarding their activity, compared with 35% of those who have heard “a little” about the government monitoring programs.

65% of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.

When asked to think about the data the government collects as part of anti-terrorism efforts, 65% of Americans say there are not adequate limits on “what telephone and internet data the government can collect.”1 Just 31% say they believe that there are adequate limits on the kinds of data gathered for these programs. The majority view that there are not sufficient limits on what data the government gathers is consistent across all demographic groups. Those who are more aware of the government surveillance efforts are considerably more likely to believe there are not adequate safeguards in place; 74% of those who have heard “a lot” about the programs say that there are not adequate limits, compared with 62% who have heard only “a little” about the monitoring programs.

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55% of Americans support the idea of online anonymity for certain activities, but many are undecided on the issue.

In the current survey, the majority of adults (55%) said that people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously for certain kinds of online activities. Another 16% do not think people should be able to remain anonymous when they are online; 27% said they don’t know.

Men are more likely than women to think people should be able to engage in certain online activities anonymously (61% vs. 49%), but support for internet anonymity does not vary by age. Education is a predictor, but income is not; adults with at least some college education are significantly more likely than those who have not attended college to believe that people should have the ability to use the internet anonymously (66% vs. 40%).

Even as they expect online anonymity, most assume that motivated people and organizations could uncover private details.

Many believe they are particularly vulnerable to people or organizations who have a motive to learn private details about their past. When considering how difficult it would be for a motivated person or organization to learn private details about their past that they would prefer to keep private, 64% of adults said it would be “not too” or “not at all” difficult for a motivated person or organization to uncover that sensitive information. Just 20% felt it would be “very” or “somewhat” difficult.

Men and women report similar responses, but those ages 50 and older (76%) are significantly more likely to believe it would be “not too” or “not at all difficult” when compared with those under the age of 50 (54%). Similarly, those with a college degree are more likely than those who have not attended college to feel more exposed (70% vs. 58%).

More about these surveys

The majority of the analysis in this report is based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted between Aug. 5, 2014, and Sept. 2, 2014, among a sample of 498 adults ages 18 or older. The survey was conducted by the GfK Group using KnowledgePanel, its nationally representative online research panel. GfK selected a representative sample of 1,537 English-speaking panelists to invite to join the subpanel and take the first survey in January 2014. Of the 935 panelists who responded to the invitation (60.8%), 607 agreed to join the subpanel and subsequently completed the first survey (64.9%), the results of which were reported in November 2014. This group has agreed to take four online surveys about “current issues, some of which relate to technology” over the course of a year and possibly participate in one or more 45- to 60-minute online focus group chat sessions. For the second survey whose results are reported here, 498 of the original 607 panelists participated. A random subset of the subpanel is occasionally invited to participate in online focus groups. For this report, a total of 26 panelists participated in one of three online focus groups conducted during December 2014. Sampling error for the total sample of 498 respondents is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

An additional survey related to Americans’ views about the importance of privacy was conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 16, 2015, among a sample of 461 adults ages 18 or older. The sample was drawn from the same 607 adults who agreed to participate in the subpanel on privacy. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percentage points.

(Video) WHEN PRIVACY AND DATA PROTECTION RULES, WHAT AND WHO LOSES OUT?

For more information on the Privacy Panel, please see the Methods section at the end of this report.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of the various outside reviewers who offered their insights at various stages of this project. In particular, we would like to thank Tiffany Barrett, danah boyd, Mary Culnan and all of the attendees of the Future of Privacy Forum Research Seminar Series, Urs Gasser, Chris Hoofnagle, Michael Kaiser, Kirsten Martin and Bruce Schneier. In addition, the authors are grateful for the ongoing editorial, methodological and production-related support provided by the staff of the Pew Research Center.

While we greatly appreciate all of these contributions, the authors alone bear responsibility for the presentation of these findings, as well as any omissions or errors.

FAQs

Do Americans value privacy? ›

Surveys indicate that Americans highly value information privacy, both in terms of what is gathered and by whom. Trust in the integrity of the data gathering agents is low.

Which is more important security or privacy? ›

Even if you don't subscribe to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's obvious that security is more important. Security is vital to survival, not just of people but of every living thing. Privacy is unique to humans, but it's a social need.

Why is privacy so important to people? ›

Privacy is important because: Privacy gives us the power to choose our thoughts and feelings and who we share them with. Privacy protects our information we do not want shared publicly (such as health or personal finances). Privacy helps protect our physical safety (if our real time location data is private).

Why is government surveillance important? ›

Mass surveillance has often been cited as necessary to fight terrorism, prevent crime and social unrest, protect national security, and control the population.

Where do Americans get the right to privacy? ›

​In Griswold, the Supreme Court found a right to privacy, derived from penumbras of other explicitly stated constitutional protections. The Court used the personal protections expressly stated in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to find that there is an implied right to privacy in the Constitution.

How does the US define privacy? ›

Legally, the right of privacy is a basic law which includes: The right of persons to be free from unwarranted publicity. Unwarranted appropriation of one's personality. Publicizing one's private affairs without a legitimate public concern.

What is the purpose of privacy and security? ›

Whereas privacy concerns mainly the protection of one's own information and that of others, identity management is being in control of our online profile, and security relates more to a person's awareness of how online actions and behaviour can put both at risk.

Why is protecting your privacy important? ›

The escalation of security breaches involving personally identifiable information (PII) has contributed to the loss of millions of records over the past few years. Breaches involving PII are hazardous to both individuals and organisations - individual harms may include identity theft, embarrassment, or blackmail.

Why is it important for security and privacy to be considered as one of the important factors in design development and maintenance of an HRIS? ›

Security. An HRIS must protect employees' privacy while ensuring that the data is accurate and the information remains accessible to authorized parties. When developing the system, ensure that it requires user names and passwords for access and tht it keeps logs of access requests to record who has been viewing files.

How does privacy affect our lives? ›

Privacy helps us establish boundaries to limit who has access to our bodies, places and things, as well as our communications and our information. The rules that protect privacy give us the ability to assert our rights in the face of significant power imbalances.

How can we protect our privacy? ›

Tips to protect your privacy
  1. Know your rights. ...
  2. Read privacy policies and collection notices. ...
  3. Always ask why, how and who. ...
  4. Check your credit report. ...
  5. Protect yourself online. ...
  6. Be aware of your mobile security. ...
  7. Use security software. ...
  8. Be careful what you share on social media.

Should we recognize privacy as a human right? ›

The right to privacy is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 reads: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.

How does surveillance affect human rights? ›

Finally, mass surveillance negatively affects other human rights and freedoms, as unjustified interferences with privacy prevent the enjoyment of other rights and they often provide the gateway to the violation of the rest of human right, including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, ...

Does surveillance make us morally better? ›

In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from or obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action.

What is the purpose of surveillance? ›

The purpose of surveillance is to provide information for action, and as such the design of a surveillance system should be shaped by the information requirements (surveillance system outputs) of those responsible for taking the control and prevention action that is to be informed by the system.

Which is the main idea in the right to privacy? ›

What is a main idea in the right to privacy? People can make their own lawful decisions. People can protect their property by any means necessary. People can decide if the government is intruding in their lives.

How many privacy laws are there in USA? ›

The right to privacy is protected also by more than 600 laws in the states and by a dozen federal laws, like those protecting health and student information, also limiting electronic surveillance.

Does USA have right to information? ›

For example, all U.S. states have laws governing access to public documents belonging to the state and local taxing entities. Additionally, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act governs record management of documents in the possession of the federal government.

What is the right to information in USA? ›

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives any person the right to request access to records of the Executive Branch of the United States Government. The records requested must be disclosed unless they are protected by one or more of the exempt categories of information found in the FOIA.

Why is it important to protect your privacy online? ›

Internet privacy is important because it gives you control over your identity and personal information. Without that control, anyone with the intention and means can manipulate your identity to serve their goals, whether it is selling you a more expensive vacation or stealing your savings.

What causes privacy issues? ›

Data privacy breaches are often caused by poorly managed access within an organization. People and processes matter as much as technology. Humans are the weakest link in the chain of privacy and security. However, as distributed working proliferates, it's harder to manage user access and secure your sensitive data.

How do you protect your privacy and that of others on social media? ›

Here are eleven ways you can take control over your social media privacy:
  • Read the platform's Terms of Service;
  • Review the platform's Privacy Policy and adjust your privacy settings;
  • Only accept friend requests from people you know;
  • Be careful what you post;
  • Remove personal identifying information;
13 May 2021

Is privacy is a moral right Why or why not? ›

Privacy is considered to be a moral right because people should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to reveal any personal information. An individual should not be forced into disclosing their personal or confidential information if they wish to maintain their privacy.

Why privacy is a moral? ›

Privacy has moral value because it shields us in all three contexts by providing certain freedom and independence — freedom from scrutiny, prejudice, pressure to conform, exploitation, and the judgment of others.

Which country values privacy the most? ›

How Norway achieved top honors for internet privacy
  • The country set up the Norwegian Data Protection Authority, which is an independent public authority created with the purpose of protecting individual privacy.
  • To collect or process any personal data in Norway, consent must be given.
21 Sept 2022

Do Americans or Europeans have more rights to privacy? ›

Europeans are still more likely to take charge of their privacy. Of Startpage's split of users, who lean more privacy-conscious, Europe represents 56% of a typical day's private searches overall — with Germany specifically representing 36% — and the U.S. representing 21%. The U.S. overrules EU privacy standards.

Do Americans value personal space? ›

American, as a whole, are people who like a bit more personal space compared to people from other cultures. Most Americans value their personal space and feel discomfort, upset, or anxiety when another person gets too close. This is especially true when talking to or meeting a new person and when in groups.

Is privacy a moral value? ›

According to this view, there is a moral value of privacy that stems from being a shield to protect the individual against scrutiny, prejudice, pressure, exploitation and judgements of others. So, by enabling individuals to have freedom and independence, the importance of privacy is clearly manifested.

What is the value of privacy? ›

Privacy is about the freedom to make choices without fear: how you want to live, what you believe in, who you are friends with, and what you want to share with whom. A lack of privacy leads to uniformity and self-censorship, which pushes our opinions to the edges and erodes our ability to engage in healthy debate.

What country respects privacy? ›

Iceland. Iceland is part of the European Economic Area, which means it's GDPR compliant, but it has strong laws of its own. Its Data Privacy Act requires organizations to only collect personal data for legitimate purposes and with individuals' consent, and penalties for violation reaching three years in prison.

Who has the best privacy policy? ›

Below are five examples of well-presented privacy policies companies should mirror as they create their own GDPR-compliant practices.
  • Disney's privacy policy. Disney's privacy policy hub. ...
  • Uber's privacy policy. Uber's privacy policy website here. ...
  • Google's privacy policy. ...
  • Twitter's privacy policy.

Does the US have any privacy laws? ›

The federal government passed the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974 to enhance individual privacy protection. This act established rules and regulations regarding U.S. government agencies' collection, use, and disclosure of personal information.

Do humans have a natural right to privacy? ›

In 1948, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, in Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.

Which countries violate human rights the most? ›

In 2017, South Sudan ranked last for Human Rights Protection, followed by Syria, Sudan, and Myanmar.
...
Countries with lowest Human Rights Protection Scores as of 2017.
CharacteristicHuman rights score
South Sudan-2.59
Syria-2.56
Sudan-2.47
Myanmar-2.47
9 more rows
13 Aug 2021

How is personal space in America? ›

Stand about two feet (a little more than half a meter) away during conversations. If you walk into an auditorium or seated area that is not crowded, leave an extra seat between you and the next person. However, it is acceptable to sit next to someone if you know them or the room is crowded.

How is personal space defined in America? ›

Social space is often divided further by gender, age, status, and other considerations, but for US-Americans the emphasis is often on informality and egalitarianism. PERSONAL = Eighteen inches to four feet. Personal space begins around eighteen inches from another person and may extend out to about four feet.

Why are Americans so informal? ›

Americans believe that all people are of equal standing, and are therefore uncomfortable with overt displays of respect such as being bowed to. Informality. This belief in equality causes Americans to be rather informal in their behavior towards other people.

Should we have a right to privacy? ›

Privacy rights help maintain social boundaries. Everyone has things they don't want certain people to know. Having the right to establish boundaries is important for healthy relationships and careers. In the past, putting up boundaries simply meant choosing to not talk about specific topics.

Is privacy a positive right? ›

These related rights can be grouped into two broad categories—negative and positive rights. Negative rights, such as the right to privacy, the right not to be killed, or the right to do what one wants with one's property, are rights that protect some form of human freedom or liberty, .

Videos

1. City of Philadelphia officials speak on arrival of migrants bused to Philadelphia from Texas
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2. The Conflict between Privacy and Security - Bruce Schneier
(Wix Engineering Tech Talks)
3. Praise the Whistleblower-Privacy, Freedom and the Surveillance State
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4. Jeffrey Rosen - Is Privacy Dead?
(FORA.tv)
5. Does the convenience of new technology involve a tradeoff with privacy?
(Web Summit)
6. Surveillance in an Era of Pandemic and Protest
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