Big Brother is watching and Americans know it. New figures from the quarterly Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll show that most Americans exhibit a healthy amount of skepticism and resignation about data collection and surveillance, and show varying degrees of trust in institutions to responsibly use their personal information.
A full 85 percent of Americans believe their communications history, like phone calls, emails and Internet use, are accessible to the government, businesses, and others. Two in three (66 percent) feel that they have little or no control over the type of information that is collected and used by various groups and organizations. Fifty-nine percent, meanwhile, feel that they are unable to correct inaccurate personal information.
The poll – conducted days before the disclosure of top-secret government surveillance programs – also finds that just 48 percent of Americans have “some” or a “great deal” of trust in the government when it comes to the use of their personal data. Similarly, cell phone and Internet service providers are trusted by just 48 percent of the public. Healthcare providers and employers were seen as the most trustworthy institutions with respect to responsible use of information, with 80 percent of all respondent and 79 percent of employed respondents saying they have “some” or a “great deal” of trust in them, respectively.
The survey finds that Americans are also divided on possible steps to improve national security, with just 10 percent supporting expanded government monitoring of phone and email activities. Rather, the public is more likely to favor increased use of camera surveillance of public places, with 44 percent supporting the measure, followed by 16 percent of respondents in favor of “increased censorship of websites and less freedom to access sources on the Internet.” However, a full 42 percent of respondents said they oppose all three options.
With respect to privacy in the future, nine in ten poll respondents said they feel that they have less privacy than previous generations and expect the next generation will be even worse off. Meanwhile, a clear majority (88 percent) favors a federal policy to require the deletion of online information and nearly four in ten (37 percent) report they have personally experienced fraudulent use of their personal information to make purchases without their consent.
Importantly, a wide majority of Americans (79 percent) believe that IRS scrutiny of the political activities of certain groups is typical and has probably happened under previous administrations.
When asked to weigh the relative benefits and drawbacks of personal data collection, Americans generally believe the practice has a mostly negative impact. More than half (55 percent) say the collection and use of information is “mostly negative” because the information can be collected and used in a way that can risk personal privacy, peoples’ safety, financial security, and individual liberties. A minority (38 percent) believe it is “mostly positive” because more information can result in better decisions about how to improve the economy, grow businesses, provide better service, and increase public safety.
Despite an overall sense of discomfort with information collection and usage, Americans do recognize they could receive some transactional benefits or advantages in exchange for their personal information. More than two in three Americans believe that the collection and use of their personal information is likely to result in a greater ability to stay in touch with friends and relatives, receive more information about interesting products and services, and result in access to lower prices.
“Americans are understandably concerned that the fundamental American right to privacy is no more,” said Marci Kaminsky, senior vice president of public relations for Allstate Insurance Company. “A majority of Americans aren’t happy or comfortable about the collection and use of their personal information, and they have mixed feelings about whether they can trust that their information is being used responsibly. Protecting privacy and rebuilding trust with Americans will require shared accountability and compromise among the public and private sectors, as well as among individual citizens.”
“This survey found Americans teetering between anticipation and anxiety as they sort through the implications of the brave new world of communications, connectivity, and surveillance,” added Ronald Brownstein, editorial director of Atlantic Media.
“Just as revealing, follow-up interviews with respondents found that many people feel as if they have no real opportunity to personally determine whether the benefits of the new communications world justify the cost: since few see opting out of the Internet and connectivity revolution as a real option, many of those interviewed project the sense that the erosion of privacy is another broad trend, like the decline of employment security, that is being imposed on average Americans by forces beyond their control. In that way, these new findings strongly echo perhaps the central chord of the previous 16 Heartland Monitor surveys: the widespread belief among Americans that they are ‘paddling alone’ without support from any institution as they navigate the turbulence of modern life.”
Detailed key findings from the poll follow are available via PDF