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Pew Finds Americans Value Privacy, Distrust Government, Tech Firms

When it comes to protecting their personal information in the post-Snowden era, Americans feel about how you'd expect.

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If privacy is dead, it's not because Americans don't cherish it. According to a new study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, Americans greatly value privacy — they just have little confidence it's being protected.

Conducted in 2014 and early 2015, Pew's surveys of one set of 461 adults and another of 498 adults aged 18 to 50+, found that more than 90% of respondents consider their communications and confidentiality important — even as 54% expressed distrust toward a government with broad surveillance power. Meanwhile, 66% said they worry that the tech companies they entrust with their personal information can't properly secure it.

Sixty-five percent of the people Pew surveyed said current limits on the U.S. government's collection of phone and internet data were inadequate. And roughly two-thirds expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of search engines, social networks, and video sites to keep their information private and secure. (No individual companies were named. Instead, 11 categories were used, with online advertisers ranked as the least trustworthy.)

Pew's findings on the American public's attitudes toward data collection and surveillance come at an important time politically.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's disclosures about U.S. government spy programs, the House of Representatives recently passed the USA Freedom Act, which would strip intelligence agencies of the legal authority to collect in bulk the phone records of Americans.

And in April, following a multiyear effort, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would allow businesses to share cyberthreat information with one another and the government — a move that would free tech firms from the legal liability of sharing consumer information.

The public unease with current personal data protections captured by Pew's surveys reflects criticism aimed at both bills.

Where supporters of the USA Freedom Act market the legislation as a pragmatic reform to the unchecked powers of the National Security Agency, privacy advocates see a toothless law, packed with the linguistic ambiguity that invites the same surveillance-state abuse that provoked demands for reform in the first place.

Similarly, the data sharing bill, touted as a crucial law enforcement tool fit for the coming cyberwars is seen by civil liberties groups as an unholy arrangement, formalizing the perverse relationship between data-harvesting private enterprise and paranoid government agencies. Critics argue that fearmongering over cyberthreats is being used as a pretext to grant the government access to previously unknowable consumer information, replacing due process with data inference.

Interestingly, despite the pervasive privacy concerns showcased in the Pew survey, the research firm's study reveals that few respondents are taking advanced, technical steps to ensure their data security. Only 1 in 10 said they encrypt their calls, texts, or email, and even fewer said they use software tools to cloak their activity on the web.

Thumbnail credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.

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