A new survey shows Americans increasingly care about privacy

4 min read
Osman

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.

A padlock painted with the Stars and Stripes.

Given how many privacy breaches hit the news, it’s of little surprise that 96% of Americans recently surveyed by ExpressVPN said that online data privacy was important to them.

What’s more, many were willing to take action to proactively protect themselves: 92% of survey respondents indicated that they would delete an app they regularly use if it were caught selling their data.

About two-thirds would pay to delete all their personal data and erase their digital footprint from the internet forever, similar to the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law.

And Facebook’s myriad privacy scandals have left their mark—42% of respondents said they had either deleted their account or significantly reduced the time spent on the platform.

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The survey of 1,200 American adults was conducted in partnership with online sampling service Luc.id. In another sign of growing disaffection with tech companies, the number of people who said they regularly read through the terms and conditions of the apps on their phones grew 94.7% since a similar survey last year.

What do consumers think about tech backdoors?

Technology backdoors can be a way for governments, surveillance agencies, or other nosy entities to gain access to encrypted communications. Developers might put backdoors in applications so that they can carry out remote troubleshooting and for other purposes, but critics of the practice maintain that it does more harm than good.

The 2016 shootings in San Bernardino, California, brought backdoors squarely into the public eye; the FBI demanded that Apple build a backdoor so that it could access the attacker’s iPhone, but Tim Cook refused.

Apple published an open letter about its decision, saying that it would set a “dangerous precedent” and had troubling implications for data security.

While the FBI was able to access the phone using a third-party vendor, the ExpressVPN survey suggests that a majority of Americans (53%) want companies to persist in refusing to build backdoors for the government.

That’s despite the government ramping up the pressure on tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, and Huawei to provide access to confidential data as and when requested.

Apple isn’t buckling, with the U.S. attorney general, William Barr, accusing the company of not doing enough to help with the investigation of a shooting at a naval base in Florida late last year.

Does facial recognition win over the public?

Americans are OK with facial recognition technology as long as it makes their lives more convenient—such as unlocking their phones—but don’t welcome further intrusions in their personal lives.

In the survey, 68% of U.S. adults said they’re concerned with the growing ubiquity of facial recognition technology, with 78% flagging it as a mechanism of further abuse via surveillance.

Facebook’s practice of using artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically recognize and tag individuals in photographs made 63% of respondents feel uncomfortable.

This might be partly because facial recognition scanners are inherently biased in their approach. A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed that most detection algorithms misidentified individuals of some ethnic groups up to 100 times more frequently than others.

The study based its results on two approaches—a “one-to-one” check, where an image was used to match someone against a piece of government-issued ID, as well as a “one-to-many” check, which matched a record in a larger database.

The results were shocking: Asian and African-American people had an error rate that was up to 100 times greater than that of white men. Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were also often misidentified. The most accurate results were found in the white men category.

Big tech gets a thumb down

A mere 9% of Americans surveyed fully trusted that companies were protecting their online data privacy, and only 10% were very confident that big tech companies were complying with current data privacy regulations.

However, there’s no federal data privacy law in the U.S. that governs the activities of big tech companies, despite 56% of Americans believing otherwise.

Efforts to curtail the reach of tech companies and force them to be more transparent about their data-gathering practices have currently only been implemented at the state level, as in California and Maine.

Despite Apple’s pro-privacy stance, 53% of respondents said they didn’t trust the company or believe its claims that “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.” Facebook didn’t perform any better, with 53% of those surveyed saying that they didn’t feel confident that the social media company wanted to protect its users’ privacy.

Of those questioned, 61% indicated unease with Instagram’s association with Facebook, saying that they weren’t confident that it did a better job of protecting personal data than its parent company. All in all, 84% of Americans would exercise their right to ask websites and online services to delete their data, if the law permitted them to do so.

Such laws might be years away, but efforts to kick-start the conversation and grind the bureaucratic wheels have started. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York recently proposed a new Data Protection Act that would create a new independent agency called the Data Protection Agency, with the mandate to safeguard consumer data and the authority to enforce data practices.

“The poll results are clear: Americans no longer trust Big Tech after they have repeatedly been caught abusing user data. People want to see an end to tech companies trampling on our right to privacy and to take back control of their data,” said ExpressVPN Vice President Harold Li, commenting on the survey.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.