Poll: Americans Distrust Government Collection of Data

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Americans are more likely to view the collection of their data by the government as a risk than a benefit.

Big Brother is watching and Americans are not happy about it.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe it is impossible to go through daily life without the government scooping up their data online, and a near-equal number say the risks they face because of that data collection outweigh any benefits, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found.

Despite their concerns over what data is being collected by the government, Americans feel powerless to stop the surveillance, the survey found. Eighty-four percent of Americans say they have very little or no control over the information the government collects on them.

State, local and the federal government collect information on citizens in a variety of ways. The National Security Agency’s collection of Americans phone records has been a continuous point of contention in Congress, but data sharing between state and local governments and the federal government have also raised privacy concerns. This week, the Associated Press reported that Nebraska would become the first state to begin sharing state driver’s license data with the federal government as part of the Trump administration’s effort to count the number of U.S. citizens.  

Meanwhile, local governments have faced criticism over failures to protect citizens’ personal information against data breaches and hacks. Hackers have targeted local governments as a means to steal credit card information used to pay utility bills and taxes.  

Law enforcement entities are also increasingly requesting access to individuals’ data through private companies. Facebook said this week that government requests for user data continued to increase during the first half of this year. The company received 128,617 demands for user information, including 50,741 demands from the U.S. government.  

In addition to measuring Americans views on government data collection, the Pew report also asked survey respondents about data collection and use by private companies and found higher levels of distrust and skepticism. Eight out of ten Americans said the risks outweigh the benefits of companies collecting data about them, and 79% said they are somewhat or very concerned about how companies use their data. 

The Pew report was based on a survey of 4,272 people conducted in June 2019.

With the potential for the government to collect large swaths of Americans’ personal data, the Pew report said its survey findings “point to an overall wariness about the state of privacy these days.” However, the survey found that there are certain circumstances in which the public is more tolerant of government data collection. For instance, 49% of Americans felt it was acceptable for the government to collect and share data on poorly performing schools with nonprofit group seeking to help improve educational outcomes. The same percentage said it was acceptable for the government to collect data about all Americans to assess who might be a potential terrorist.

Americans appear to be more accepting of government data collection when it is for public safety purposes. A previous Pew study found that 56% of Americans trusted U.S. law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition technology responsibly.  

Among the ways that the public believe they are being surveilled, 47% of adults believe the government is tracking most of their online activities and 56% believe the government is tracking at least some of their offline activities, like who they are talking to or where they travel.

“While relatively few Americans feel as if they have a lot of control over who has access to everything from their physical location to their social media posts, there are experiences in which some Americans especially feel a lack of control,” the report said.

Almost half of Americans said they feel they have no control over who can access their internet search terms, and 41% said they don’t feel like they have control over who can access information about the websites they visit.

Despite the concerns about being tracked, 80% of Americans said they have little knowledge or understanding of what the government does with the information it collects.

Andrea Noble is a staff corespondent with Route Fifty.

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