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Americans lack confidence about controlling privacy

Whether it’s from government snoops or online marketers, most Americans feel that they have little or no control over how their online personal information is being collected and used.

These are the findings of a study, Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era, that was released today by the Pew Research Center.

The findings don’t bode well for the U.S. government or the likes of Facebook, Google and other companies that use consumer data to monetize their services.

Companies and government

For example, 91% of respondents say that they agree or strongly agree that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies, while 70% of social networking site users say they are at least “somewhat concerned” about the government accessing some of the information “they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.” Neary 9 in 10 (88%) say ”it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.”

The survey was conducted in January, 2014 with a sample of 607 adults, 18 years of age or older. There is a 4% margin of error.

Publicity around Edward Snowden’s revelations seems to have had an impact. More than 4 in 10 (43%) of adults ‘have heard a lot about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity.” Another 44% have heard “a little,” and only 5% said they have heard “nothing at all.”

We trust landlines, but that’s about it

When it comes to communications, the number of people feeling “not very” or “not at all” secure is rather startling. The only exception is landline phones where only 31% feel insecure compared to:

  • 81% not feeling secure when using social media to share private information
  • 68% when using chat or instant messages
  • 58% for text messages
  • 57% for email
  • 46% for making calls on their cell phone
    Not doing enough

The researchers found that most adults “express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online,” with only 37% saying they “already do enough.” Only 24% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online,” according to the report.

True, the survey did find that many Americans take steps to protect or at least monitor their privacy such as using a “search engine to look up their own name or see what information about them is on the internet” (62%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) “believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.” Yet, as the survey shows, many don’t trust their own government when it comes to its use of their personal information.

Low hanging fruit

The survey didn’t cover ways that people can protect their privacy but there are things you can do, including:

  • Using controls on Facebook, Google+ and other services that limit who can see what you post
  • Being aware of the privacy policy of apps and sites so you know what they’re doing with your information.
  • Making sure you use strong, secure and unique passwords and that your devices are as secure as possible
  • Using do-not-track features built into most browsers that can limit third party tracking cookies

There is relatively little you can do to protect yourself from government scrutiny, though you can use sites with strong encryption from companies that don’t store your data for long periods of time, which reduces the chance of the government getting hold of your data. Apple and Google have encrypted phone data but the government may challenge their use of strong encryption.