January 16, 2015

Privacy and Cybersecurity: Key findings from Pew Research

In a series of speeches delivered in advance of his State of the Union address, President Obama announced an array of new proposals intended to increase protections for Americans’ privacy and security online. These actions aim to reduce identity theft, improve access to credit scores, and strengthen consumers’ rights to control the way their data and their children’s data are used. Pew Research Center has been studying Americans’ attitudes about their own personal information security and that of their families for years. Here are a few highlights:

91% of American adults say that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.

Privacy, Personal InformationAmericans express a broad loss of control over the way their personal data are managed by companies. Fully 91% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” This includes 45% who “strongly agree” and 46% who “agree” that consumers have lost control.

Those with a college education are more likely than those who have not attended college to “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control, 51% vs. 40%.

The public has little confidence in the security of their everyday communications.

Internet Privacy and SecurityAcross six different methods of communication, there is not one mode through which a majority of the American public feels “very secure” when sharing private information with another trusted person or organization.

American adults view social media sites as the least secure channel to communicate private information to another trusted person or organization; just 2% view them as “very secure,” while 14% feel “somewhat secure” sharing sensitive information on social media.

By comparison, Americans express the greatest sense of security using landline phones when sharing private information with another trusted entity. However, their level of confidence is still quite low; just 16% of adults say they feel “very secure” sharing private information via the landline phone, while 51% say they feel “somewhat secure.”

Most Americans support greater regulation of how advertisers handle their personal information.

Americans Want Limits on AdvertisersWhile the surveillance practices of government agencies have been the focus of many public discussions and debates since the revelations brought forth by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, our previous research has suggested that Americans are also concerned about data collection by advertisers. Additionally, public concern over the amount of personal information businesses are collecting has been growing.

Even as Americans express concern about government access to their data, they feel as though government could do more to regulate what advertisers do with their personal information; 64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.

Parents report high levels of concern about advertisers’ access to data about their children’s online activities.

Teens' Online PrivacyWhen asked about the information that advertisers can gather about their child’s online behavior, parents’ concern levels rival and sometimes even exceed worries about their child’s interaction with people they do not know online. In a 2012 survey 81% of parents said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about their child’s online behavior. By comparison, the combined levels of parental concern regarding their children’s interactions with people they do not know amounts to 72% of all parents.

Parents of younger teens are more likely than those with older teens to express some level of concern about the issue of advertisers tracking their child’s online behavior (87% vs. 77%).

See our overview on President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union, and read our related fact sheets on immigrationthe economy, and energy and the environment