Control over personal info nearly dead, Pew survey respondents say

Many said they've lost control over how their personal data is used, according to a Pew survey

Digital privacy in the White House

Digital privacy in the White House

Internet companies have run amok with our personal data, and people aren't entirely sure what to do about it, judging from the results of a new survey.

More than 90 percent of Americans feel they've lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies, particularly for advertising purposes, according to the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center, published Wednesday.

Eighty percent expressed concern over how third parties like advertisers accessed the data they share on social media sites. Pew did not gather the names of which sites specifically respondents meant, but you could likely venture a guess.

The survey, which polled 607 adults online, was the Washington, D.C.-based think tank's first in a series to tackle Americans' views toward privacy after the leaks around government surveillance made by Edward Snowden last year.

The majority of respondents did indeed say that people should be concerned about whether the government is listening in on their phone calls, or viewing their online communications and other sensitive data.

But beyond government surveillance, the findings also reflect people's attitudes amid the increasing sophistication by which Internet companies leverage people's data for advertising.

"It's a bundle of concerns," said Lee Rainie, one of Pew's lead researchers on the project, in an interview. "It's partly surveillance, it's partly tracking, and this generalized sense that I'm losing control of my identity and my data," he said.

The constant flood of stories related to data breaches, whether it's at Target, Snapchat, or P.F. Chang's, don't help either.

But voicing concern about the level of access companies, governments and other groups have to data is one thing; taking action in response is another.

Some respondents said they have taken actions to protect their privacy, like using a pseudonym, but a majority of respondents agreed that achieving anonymity online is not possible.

People's concerns around privacy might be part of the trade-off in using a free service. Some 55 percent of respondents said they were willing to share "some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free."

Fewer people might be willing to make that trade-off, however, if they understood how bits of information about them is pulled together and sold to companies through complex processes, said Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies digital marketing and online privacy.

"These findings reflect a major tension at the core of people's relationship with the Internet," he said in an interview.

It's a tension that goes back many years. In a 1999 survey conducted by Turow, parents characterized the Internet as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he said, because they were both afraid of it, and considered it an important and useful service.

But companies are now getting smarter in tracking people's online behavior across devices. Google and Facebook are refining their techniques for connecting the ads people see online to whether they bought items in a physical store. Facebook's recently relaunched Atlas system lets partnered advertisers leverage Facebook members' data across the wider Internet.

To preserve privacy, the recommendation to delete cookie files doesn't really apply anymore, because more tracking is being done on mobile where cookies don't work.

Perhaps instead people should contact companies like Google and Facebook, and ask them to be more transparent about exactly what data they sell, and to whom, Turow said.

Government agencies like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission can help to preserve privacy too, or at least help companies become more transparent. Snapchat entered into an agreement earlier this year with the FTC to settle charges that it deceived users about the amount of personal data it collects.

Pew's Rainie said the nonprofit would explore more of the responses people say they can take in the group's upcoming surveys.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags social mediaprivacyinternetGoogleFacebooksocial networkingInternet-based applications and servicesPew Research Center

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Zach Miners

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Brand Post

Shining a light on creativity

MSI has long pushed the boundaries of invention with its ever-evolving range of laptops but it has now pulled off a world first with the new MSI Creative 17.

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?