Americans and Privacy: Concerned, Confused and Feeling a Lack of Control Over Their Personal Information

The drumbeat of disclosures about data breaches and controversies related to the use and misuse of people’s personal data has taken its toll on Americans’ views about the state of privacy and surveillance throughout the nation.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds across the board dismay and confusion about the kinds of data that are collected about them and how it is used. Most Americans feel they have little control over data collected about them by companies and the government. Majorities think their personal data is less secure now that five years ago. Moreover, they are not convinced the data collection does more good than harm: 81% think the potential risks of companies collecting data about them outweigh the benefits and 66% believe that about government data collections.

A share of this concern centers on data security. The public is not confident that corporations are good stewards of the data they collect. For example, 79% of Americans say they are not too or not at all confident that companies will admit mistakes and take responsibility if they misuse or compromise personal information, and 69% report having this same lack of confidence that firms will use their personal information in ways they will be comfortable with.

But even as the public expresses worry about their privacy, many acknowledge that they are not always diligent about paying attention to the privacy policies and terms of service they regularly encounter. Only about one-in-five adults overall say they always (9%) or often (13%) read a company’s privacy policy before agreeing to it. Some 38% maintain they sometimes read such policies, but 36% say they never read a company’s privacy policy before agreeing to it.

Lee Rainie, Director, Internet and Technology Research, Pew Research Center