New Pew Report Finds Consumers Insecure About Protecting Privacy Post-Snowden

Written by Alex Bradshaw

Research released this week confirms what many privacy advocates believe was inevitable post-Snowden leaks: the American public has lost confidence in their ability to keep their personal information private. The report, conducted by Pew Research Center, found that people are more aware of and concerned about government surveillance since Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s mass, secret collection of data. The findings also reveal heightened public anxiety around both government and business surveillance, accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it.

According to the report, only 18% of Americans believe the government can be trusted to do what’s right (with their data, presumably) all or most of the time. Consumers’ faith in companies is even lower: just 12% of those surveyed feel companies can be trusted to do what is right all or most of the time. Over a quarter of consumers living in low-income households believe companies can never be trusted. Despite this, many consumers are willing to share some personal information with companies in certain circumstances – which is typically the case when the company is offering its service for free in exchange for the user sharing their data.

However, the report suggests Americans do not want to surrender all of their information to companies in exchange for free services and view some data types as more sensitive than others. Not surprisingly, social security numbers and the content of phone conversations and emails were considered to be most sensitive. Additionally, respondents believed basic purchasing habits, website visits and searches (as well as friend lists) were somewhat sensitive.

Respondents also reported health data as highly sensitive; 81% of those surveyed believed health data, such as medications taken, is either very or somewhat sensitive. Consumers are right to hold this data close: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other laws have yet to catch up to consumer-facing advances in health technology, inadvertently creating a large market for unregulated data collection. Much of this data flows from personal health technology, such as wearables (which track a user’s progress toward reaching personal health goals) and mobile apps, both of which have skyrocketed in use in the last year. Tech giants are now partnering with health insurance companies to collect, store and share user information from these repositories. Health data is undeniably useful for assessing an individual’s well-being, and at the same time it’s highly profitable because it provides data miners and brokers with an overall understanding of a person’s wellbeing. Therefore, close attention must be given to these services’ data collection and sharing practices to ensure that consumers’ health takes precedence over profit margins.

What’s most clear from this report is that public backlash following the Snowden leaks is not just the government’s problem.

What’s most clear from this report is that public backlash following the Snowden leaks is not just the government’s problem. Consumers surveyed expressed a strong desire for more corporate transparency and user autonomy over data collection. Businesses must be sensitive to these data privacy expectations and commit publicly to implementing thoughtful data collection practices, coupled with easy to use privacy tools that give consumers control over how their data is used.

Companies use data to all sorts of ends — some amazing, some not so much. A lot of the time, people are willing to entrust companies with their data, even if they’re not sure how exactly it will be used — lots of people use Google’s Now service to find serendipitous new uses for the data that Google collects. Too often, however, data collection isn’t obvious; it happens in the background, without someone having made a value proposition to consumers first. It’s this hidden data collection that consumers seem to resent — the idea that data collection is happening to them and not for them. Companies in general need to do a much better job of making an affirmative case for data collection and use to consumers, or the trust issues highlighted by this Pew Report will only get worse.

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