Data Privacy

Personal data privacy: new research shows Americans are still concerned, confused, and feel out of control

The latest Pew Research Center into US attitudes to privacy is out, and it is as fascinating as it is troubling.

Two of the headline findings, from a survey of 4,272 US adults, are that 70 per cent of those taking part think that their personal data is less secure now than it was five years ago, while a majority also think that data collection by companies or governments poses more risks than benefits.

The state-of-the-nation study found that while products and services which collect and hold data are often marketed at saving users time and money or leading to better health and well-being, a large majority of US adults simply do not believe this benefits them. Some 81 per cent believe that the potential risks they face from companies collecting data outweighs the benefits, while 66 per cent feel the same about government data collection.

Simultaneously, 79 per cent of Americans report being concerned about the way their data is being used by companies, with 64 per cent concerned about how the government uses it. Most also feel they have little or no control over how their personal information is shared.

This is exacerbated by the widespread mistrust about third-party stewardship of data, with 69 per cent of those interviewed reporting a lack of confidence that firms will use their personal information in ways they will be comfortable with.

Surprisingly, given some high-profile data breaches and Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica woes, as just one mainstream example, plus the buzz around the upcoming US California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) there is also a general lack of understanding about data privacy laws among the general public. Sixty three per cent of Americans say they understand either very little or nothing at all about what data privacy laws are in place to protect them.

These findings point to an overall wariness about the state of privacy these days, but there are some bright lights. The public do see value in data-driven services with public good at their heart, for example schools which are performing poorly sharing data about their students with non-profits seeking to help improve educational outcomes.

Younger people, too, are more likely to find acceptable the idea that social media companies could monitor users for signs of depression, or for fitness tracking user data to be shared with medical researchers.

Amid these signs of a budding shift in attitudes, it is clear that the next shift needs to be in who holds this data and gives these collection and sharing permissions.

From our point of view, it would be fascinating to ask the same adults for their views on privacy, data sharing and trust if they were fully in control of their own data, and when and with whom it was shared.

But, once again, the Pew Research has provided a fascinating glimpse into how American society at large views digital privacy. Here’s to more positive moves forward, in the development of ethical personal data products and services, as well as attitudes towards the endless possibilities of data sharing done on consumers’ own terms, over the next 12 months.