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Americans oppose online surveillance, but not all are concerned
A new Pew Research Center survey found that some Americans are trying to avoid online surveillance and tracking, but not all are concerned about surveillance in their daily lives. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Americans are losing confidence in online government surveillance programs, a new Pew Research Center survey has found, but not as many are changing their habits because of it.

The new survey found that 57 percent of Americans think government surveillance of U.S. citizens email, mobile phone records and Internet activity is unacceptable, and 61 percent said that they were less confident surveillance served the public interest.

But only 25 percent of the 87 percent of Americans that had heard about government surveillance on U.S. citizens in 2013 have taken steps to better protect their online privacy, such as adopting stronger passwords for email or choosing to talk in person rather than via cellphone or text.

The survey is the latest in a series about Americans changing attitudes about privacy in the Internet age recent Pew studies have found that Americans feel theyve lost control of their privacy and an expert survey predicting that privacy will soon be a luxury. Study co-author and Pew senior researcher Mary Madden says that like those studies, this survey is giving experts a picture into how the Internet has complicated the idea of privacy in a world defined by digital connectivity.

Its that moment where people are thinking, I dont know if I want to do this anymore and maybe I want to be more careful, Madden said. Its a clear illustration of the impact this surveillance has had on national consciousness.

For privacy advocates, the survey is a sign that both the government and technology companies like Google and Facebook need to do more to be transparent about the information they collect from users and how its being used.

What we need to have is a more rigorous approach to educating everyone about privacy and security, said Michael Kaiser, director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. People should be empowered to make better choices about how public they are online. Thats the part of the calculation that doesnt get talked about as much.

The confusion gap

Pew asked those surveyed why they haven't taken steps to avoid government surveillance and tighten privacy settings and learned that many found the task challenging.

More than half said it was too hard to find the right tools or practices to help them be more private on their phones or online, like using browsers that dont track search results or site visits.

Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst for digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said its important to remember that just as the Internet is only about 26 years old, tools to improve private browsing are relatively new, too.

This is a usability issue. These tools are just beginning to be developed, Jaycox said. This is slow moving, and while a minority are changing their privacy settings now, we find that when you show people how to use tools like encryption, they tend to use them.

Kaiser says part of what he calls the confusion gap is also a problem of technological literacy.

Just the word encryption sounds complicated for a lot of people, Kaiser said.

Kaiser says the confusion gap is intensified by the fact that much of the population have adapted to life with the Internet rather than grown up with it and it was integrated it into everyday life much faster.

Unlike past life-changing technologies like electricity, which took decades to become the standard nationwide, smartphones only took about seven years to gain a 50 percent consumer adoption rate leaving little time for ordinary people to assess possible risks and protections, Kaiser said.

By the time I teach my daughter to drive, I will have been driving a long time. But with technology, were getting it at the same time, so its harder to teach someone else if Im new to it, Kaiser said. The question is how do we figure out ways to speed up education, awareness and responsible use of technology as it emerges and improves?

Education and concern

A lack of awareness about data collection or the tools to prevent it isnt the only reason why more people arent upping their privacy game.

Pew found that most people aren't worried about personal surveillance. While 57 percent said government surveillance of U.S. citizens was unacceptable, they were more split about how the surveillance impacted them. Fifty-two percent reported that they were very or somewhat concerned about government surveillance, while 46 percent said they were not very or not at all concerned about government surveillance.

A lot of people responded that they had nothing to hide, telling us they were OK with the trade-off, Madden said. Others said that they felt the adoption of more privacy protection tools would open them up to more scrutiny.

Kaiser said this could be because many Americans dont know how information is collected and how useful it is to the government or online advertising.

If you ask someone if they would prevent something bad from happening if they could, most people would say yes, Kaiser said. But how much do they understand about the other side of the equation? A lot of people know information about them is being shared on some level. They may not be aware how much its being shared.

But to the small minority that might think they have nothing to fear from surveillance and a lack of privacy, Kaiser says think again.

We dont have any of these privacy practices figured out with any certainty yet, Kaiser said. Every time I hear my daughter say, It doesnt matter what I post, no ones going to look at it later, I have to tell her, We dont know what that will mean later.

Jaycox says that whether or not Americans are concerned about how much government surveillance impacts their lives, surveillance practices could be handled much better.

American citizens data is mingled with foreigner data theyre using the same browsers terrorists are using and thats a difficult venue to conduct investigations, but that doesnt mean the answer is investigating everyone, Jaycox said. Theres always going to be concerns about privacy, but when has America not found a solution?

Until privacy protections become more standardized online, Kaiser says its crucial for parents to become as educated as they can for the sake of the next generation.

Were a car culture, and theres no hesitation to teach kids how to cross the street, Kaiser said. We havent achieved that kind of integration in digital age yet. We have to recognize that were also a digital culture.
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