Different kinds of information evoke varying levels of sensitivity among Americans. Social security numbers are universally considered to be the most sensitive piece of personal information, while media tastes and purchasing habits are among the least sensitive categories of data. In general, about half of respondents view the content of phone conversations, email messages and text messages as “very sensitive,” and one in four see that data as “somewhat sensitive.”

There are various demographic patterns that are echoed across many of the responses:

  • Those who have higher levels of income and education report greater sensitivity for nearly every kind of data included in the survey.
  • Those who have heard a lot about government surveillance programs and those who have searched for information connected to their names online report higher sensitivity levels for most categories of information. These differences are especially notable when looking at the sensitivity of phone conversations and email messages.

Social security numbers are considered to be the most sensitive piece of personal information—by far

A full 90% of adults feel as though their social security number is a “very sensitive” piece of information, and this view is broadly held across all demographic groups. Another 5% consider their social security number to be “somewhat sensitive,” while 2% say it is “not too sensitive.” Only 1% of respondents say their social security number is “not at all sensitive.”

Those who have some college education are somewhat more likely than those who have not attended college to say that their social security number is “very sensitive” (94% vs. 85%). Similarly, those living in the highest income households also report higher sensitivity levels; for instance, 95% of those living in households earning $75,000 or more per year view their social security number as “very sensitive,” compared with 83% of those living in households earning less than $50,000 annually.

Among those who have heard a lot about government surveillance programs, 95% see their social security number as very sensitive, compared with 89% of those who have heard only a little or nothing at all about the programs. Those who have searched for information about themselves online also express greater sensitivity about their social security number relative to those who haven’t checked up on their own digital footprints (94% vs. 85%).

Social security numbers, health info and phone conversations among the most sensitive data

A majority also consider health information to be very sensitive

More than half (55%) of adults consider the state of their health and the medicines they take to be “very sensitive” information while 26% view that kind of information to be “somewhat sensitive.” Another 12% say that health information is “not too sensitive,” and 5% say it is “not at all sensitive.”

Men and women rank the sensitivity of health information equally. And adults of all ages are just as likely to say that their health data is “very sensitive.” In general, those who have higher levels of education and income report a greater level of sensitivity with regard to the details of their health information.

Those who have heard a lot about government surveillance programs are especially likely to say their health information is “very sensitive” (65%), along with those who check up on their digital footprints online (61%)

The content of phone conversations is just as sensitive as health info

Americans generally consider the content of their phone conversations to be just as sensitive as information about the state of their health and the medicines they take. More than half (54%) say that phone conversations are “very sensitive,” while 27% consider them to be “somewhat sensitive.” Another 13% see that content as “not too sensitive” and just 4% consider phone conversations to be “not at all sensitive.”14

However, unlike the consistent findings among men and women for health information, men are more likely than women to say that the content of their phone conversations is “very sensitive” (59% vs. 50%).

As with many other kinds of information, differences by income, government surveillance awareness and self-searching activity are significant. Yet, there were no consistent variations by education or age.

Men and young adults are more concerned about the content of their email messages

Americans’ sensitivities about the content of their email messages rival their feelings about health information and the content of phone conversations. Among all adults, 52% consider the content of their email messages to be “very sensitive,” while 25% consider that information to be somewhat sensitive. Another 13% say they consider their email content to be “not too sensitive,” and 7% say their messages are “not at all sensitive.”15

However, men express a higher level of sensitivity about their email messages when compared with women; 57% of men say their email content is “very sensitive,” while 47% of women report this.

Young adults are more likely than seniors ages 65 and older to consider the content of their email to be “very sensitive” information (59% vs. 42%). Those with a college education express greater sensitivities relative to those who have not attended college (60% vs. 45%), and those in the highest-income households are also more likely to consider their email content to be “very sensitive” when compared with those in the lowest income group (61% vs. 43%).

Those who have heard a lot about government surveillance programs (62%), are especially likely to say the content of their email messages is “very sensitive” information along with those who have checked up on their digital footprints online (58%).

Physical location data is seen as more sensitive among the college educated

Half of adults (50%) feel as though the details of their physical location gathered over a period of time from the GPS on a cell phone is “very sensitive” information. Another 32% consider this data to be “somewhat sensitive.” Just 11% say that data is “not too sensitive,” and 5% consider location data to be “not at all sensitive.”

There are no consistent variations by gender or age for this question. However, those with a college degree are considerably more likely than those who have not attended college to say that this data is “very sensitive” (55% vs. 44%). Similarly, those in higher income households consider location data to be more sensitive.

Variations by the respondents’ level of government surveillance awareness and self-searching activity are also significant. However, the 63% of adults in the sample who are mobile internet users who access the internet on a cell phone, tablet or other handheld device at least occasionally are no more likely than non-mobile internet users to consider location data to be “very sensitive.”

Men and women are equally likely to consider text messages as sensitive

Just under half (49%) of adults said they consider the content of their text messages to be “very sensitive.” About one in four (26%) consider this data to be “somewhat sensitive,” while 13% feel as though text messages are “not too sensitive.” Only 8% consider the content of their text messages to be “not at all sensitive.”16

When men report increased sensitivity with regard to the content of their email messages, men and women have similar sensitivities about the content of their text messages.

However, young adults, who are among the most likely to be fervent users of text messaging, express higher levels of sensitivity regarding text messages when compared with seniors; 55% of those ages 18-29 say they consider the content of their text messages to be “very sensitive,” compared with 38% of those ages 65 and older.

Those who have a college education and those who live in households earning at least $75,000 per year consider text messages to be more sensitive when compared with lower education and income groups.

Variations by the respondents’ level of government surveillance awareness and self-searching activity are also significant. Mobile internet users are more likely than non-users to say the content of their text messages is “very sensitive.”

Records of numbers called or texted are viewed as most sensitive by younger adults

Slightly less than half (45%) of adults said they feel as though the numbers they have called or texted from their phone is “very sensitive” information. About one in three (30%) consider this data to be “somewhat sensitive,” while 16% consider the numbers called or texted to be “not too sensitive.” Only 6% consider a record of these numbers to be “not at all sensitive.”

Young adults express higher levels of sensitivity regarding this data when compared with seniors; 53% of those ages 18-29 say they view the record of who they have called or texted to be “very sensitive,” data compared with 36% of those ages 65 and older.

Men and women express the same levels of sensitivity about these numbers. Variations by education are not significant, but those who live in households earning at least $75,000 per year consider text messages to be more sensitive when compared with those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year.

Views on the sensitivity of these numbers vary by the respondents’ level of government surveillance awareness and self-searching activity. Mobile internet users are more likely than non-users to say these numbers are is “very sensitive.”

About four in ten see their birth date as very sensitive, with little demographic variation

Adults’ views on the sensitivity of their birth date as a piece of information are most striking in their consistency across various demographic groups when looking at those who view this piece of data as “very sensitive.” Overall 41% see their birth date as very sensitive data, a share which doesn’t vary much across demographic groups.

The one variation that does stand out most notably is the respondent’s level of awareness about government surveillance; 47% of those who have heard about surveillance say that their birth date is a very sensitive piece of information, compared with 37% who have heard only a little or nothing at all.

People’s sensitivities about this information do differ by age, income and education when we look at the other extreme—responses among those who view this information as “not at all sensitive.” Most notably, 25% of seniors ages 65 and older see their birth date as “not at all sensitive,” compared with 12% of those ages 50-64 and 11% of those under age 50.

Those with higher levels of income and education are more concerned about details of their relationship history

Four in ten adults holds the view that their relationship history is “very sensitive” information. (The survey did not specify the kind of relationship—whether friends, romantic or professional.) About one in three (31%) consider this information to be “somewhat sensitive,” while 14% consider relationship history to be “not too sensitive.” Another 12% consider information about their relationship history to be “not at all sensitive.”

There is little consistent variation across core demographic groups. However, those with higher levels of education and income are generally more likely than other groups to rank their relationship history as “very sensitive” information. For instance, 52% of college grads consider this to be highly sensitive data compared with just 29% of those who have not attended college. Similarly, 48% of those in households earning $75,000 or more per year consider relationship history to be “very sensitive” data, compared with only 32% of those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year.

Views on the sensitivity of these numbers also vary by the respondents’ level of government surveillance awareness and self-searching activity.

Media tastes and purchasing habits are among the least sensitive categories of information

Seven of the items we asked about registered as considerably less sensitive when compared with the range of information discussed in the preceding section. For each of these categories of information, less than one-third of respondents said they considered the material to be “very sensitive.” However, there were no items for which a majority registered the material to be “not at all sensitive.”

  • 27% consider the websites they have visited to be “very sensitive,” while 43% see that information as “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 24% consider the searches they have made using online search engines to be “very sensitive,” while 41% see that data as “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 22% consider their religious and spiritual views to be “very sensitive,” while 23% view that information as “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 22% consider information about who your friends are and what they are like to be “very sensitive,” while 46% see that data as “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 20% consider their political views and the candidates they support to be “very sensitive,” while 31% feel it is “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 9% consider information about their media tastes to be “very sensitive,” while 22% see that information as “somewhat sensitive.”
  • 8% consider data about their basic purchasing habits to be “very sensitive,” while 33% view it as “somewhat sensitive.”

The responses for these questions generally follow a familiar pattern; for most items, those who have higher education and income levels express greater sensitivity when compared with those who have lower levels of education or income. Respondents’ concerns also differed significantly according to their level of awareness of government surveillance.

About one in three adults say they value the greater efficiency of online services because of the increased access they have to personal data

Mobile internet users more likely to value efficiency of services that rely on personal dataSome companies rely on collecting certain data to provide a more personalized experience for each individual by customizing advertisements and other features, while others rely on access to data to support a wide range of security features and product improvements. About a third (36%) of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data.” However, only 4% “strongly agree” with that statement. By comparison, almost two-thirds (61%) say they disagree, including 15% who “strongly disagree.”

Men and women are equally likely to disagree with this statement, but younger adults are somewhat more likely to value the increased efficiency of online services when compared with those ages 50-64.

Those who access the internet on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet were significantly more likely than non-mobile users to “agree” or “strongly agree” that they appreciate the greater efficiency of online services due to personal data collection.

Those who have heard a lot about recent government surveillance are significantly more likely to “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that online services are more efficient due to increased access to personal data. Some 72% of those who have heard a lot reported this, compared with 56% of those who have heard a little or nothing.

Many are willing to share some information about themselves with companies to use online services for free

Even as Americans indicate widespread concern about the loss of control over their personal information and little enthusiasm for the ways that access to their data may make certain online services more efficient, a majority of respondents agree that they are willing to share some personal data in exchange for access to free online services.17 Some 55% “agree” or “strongly agree” that that they are willing to share some information about themselves with companies in order to use online services for free. Another 43% “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with this statement.

Social media users more comfortable sharing personal info in exchange for free servicesAdults who access the internet on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet were particularly willing to trade some of their personal data for free services; 62% mobile internet users “agree” or “strongly agree,” compared with 45% of non-mobile internet users.

Social media users were also particularly likely to “agree” or “strongly agree” that they are willing to exchange some of their personal data for free online services. Some 60% said so, compared with 46% of those who do not use social media.

Adults who have searched for themselves online were also more willing to exchange information for services; 61% “agree” or “strongly agree” that they would be willing to share some personal data for free online services, compared with 45% of those who have not searched for themselves.