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Americans want more privacy regulation

Online survey on data privacy

A new survey from analytics software developer SAS has thrown a spotlight on the changing attitudes of US citizens towards data privacy. 

Americans being concerned about the privacy of their data is to be expected given the avalanche of stories about data breaches and the misuse of personal data that hit the headlines on an almost daily basis. It is, perhaps then, unsurprising, is that a very high percentage of US citizens would support legislation that protects their privacy.

The online survey involved 525 adult US consumers and was conducted in July 2018, not long after Europe’s GDPR data privacy laws came into force on May 25. 

Key Findings

People are worried about privacy

A massive 73 percent of participants were more worried about data privacy than they were a few years ago. Identity theft was the primary worry, but financial fraud, personal data being sold without their consent, government surveillance, and inappropriate use (or misuse) of data were also flagged as concerns.

Another 64 percent of participants said they fear their data it is less secure than it was a few years ago, which we presume means they are worried about data breaches like the ones that hit Quora and Marriott recently. 

A slightly higher percentage of older participants showed concern over data privacy with 78 percent of over 55s expressing concern, compared to 66 percent of 25 to 55-year olds, and 72 percent old under 35s. 

Many think legislation is needed

Interestingly, 67 percent of participants thought government intervention is needed in order to protect their digital privacy. This is particularly striking in a country that has always had very strong anti-government interventionist traditions. 

This support for legal protection is no doubt driven by the fact that only 61 percent of respondents felt as if they had complete control over their data, while almost a quarter (24 percent) felt they had no control at all.

Over 80 percent of those who want greater regulation want the right to know where and to whom their data is sold, while an even greater number (83 percent) want the right to prevent it being sold in the first place.

It is worth noting that these are core rights enjoyed by EU citizens under GDPR. Interestingly, although 73 of respondents wanted the right ask organizations what they did with their data, a more modest majority (64 percent) wanted the right to remove or delete their data as EU citizens are entitled to. 

Taking matters into their own hands 

In the absence of government leadership on the matter, the survey showed that more and more people (66 percent) are taking their own measures to try to keep their data safe. These include everything from changing their privacy settings (77 percent) to removing a social media account (36 percent). 

In addition to this, over a third of participants said they have used social media less because they were “not at all confident” that social media companies can be trusted with their privacy. Just under a third had also cut down on online shopping because of privacy concerns.

The survey clearly demonstrated that confidence in organizations is very low. Most trust was held in health care organizations (47 percent) and banks (46 percent), but even this is still less than half of the survey's participants expressing trust in them.  

Social media organizations were the considered the least trustworthy, with only 14 percent of participants placing faith in them. Hardly surprising, with the Facebook / Cambridge Analyta scandal prominent in the headlines shortly before the survey was conducted. Expert Opinion

As always with surveys of this kind, it is important to be aware of their limitations. 525 participants out of a United States population of over 325 million can never be considered representative, and online surveys are notoriously self-selective in terms of who chooses to participate.

That said, its findings chime with a recent study by Americans are worried about their online privacy and are increasingly prepared to take matters into their own hands in an attempt to preserve it. 

The big question for us, of course, is how effective these measures are. The SAS report mentions fairly low-tech type stuff, such as not accepting cookies, declining the terms of an agreement. and deleting mobile apps.

It makes no mention, though, of more sophisticated measures such as using a VPN to hide activity on the web, installing browser add-ons to prevent online tracking, using various forms of end-to-end encryption to ensure private communications and data stay private. 

It is also worth noting that it was Congress which authorized ISPs to sell their customers' data last year. This does not bode well for the 67 percent of participants looking to the government to protect them against online privacy abuses. 

It is true that where the Federal Government has failed, some state governments have attempted to redress the balance, the much-lauded California Consumer Privacy Act, for example. Sadly this falls far short of providing consumers with the privacy protections they need (and deserve). 

What this survey does, is add to the body of evidence that ordinary American consumers are not happy with the status quo, and are increasingly willing to follow the EU’s lead in this matter.

The problem, of course, is that the incumbent government has no interest whatsoever in curbing the excesses of big business – in the privacy sphere or elsewhere. Quite the opposite, in fact.

If you're serious about protecting your privacy, why not check out our best VPNs for the USA.

Image credit: By Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.

Written by: Douglas Crawford

Has worked for almost six years as senior staff writer and resident tech and VPN industry expert at Widely quoted on issues relating cybersecurity and digital privacy in the UK national press (The Independent & Daily Mail Online) and international technology publications such as Ars Technica.


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