Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era

Americans’ Perceptions of Privacy are Varied

The term “privacy” evokes a constellation of concepts in the minds of the American public

To better understand how the public thinks about privacy, a representative sample of 607 adults were asked an open-ended question in an online survey: “When you hear the word “privacy,” what comes to mind for you?”7 The responses that followed were striking in their variance, ranging from one-word entries to lengthier descriptions that touched on multiple concepts.

Privacy word cloud

Once the responses were coded, a set of key words and themes emerged as the most frequently referenced and top-of-mind for the general public. Each of the top ten themes was referenced in at least 5% of the total responses. However, a full 22% of the responses referenced some other theme that was mentioned only a handful of times or was entirely unique.

“Privacy” in the words of the public

A large segment of the responses associated privacy with concepts of security, safety and protection

For many Americans, privacy is closely associated with references to security.8 Even as “privacy” and “security” signal distinct sectors of technological development and legal protections, these concepts are often blurred and overlapping for the general public. Among all of the themes referenced in the open-ended responses to the online survey, security, safety and protection was the most frequently-referenced category; 14% of the responses used these phrases in some form. Respondents associated privacy with the “security of personal information” or as something that “must be protected.” And among the most common one-word responses were simply the words “secure” and “security.”

In online focus groups, smaller groups of respondents from the survey were asked specifically about the way they think about privacy versus security online. In many cases, respondents viewed the terms as interchangeable:

Q: Is there any difference in the way you think about privacy and security online?

“I think it’s pretty much the same.”

“I see them as the same.” 

“Not to me, that is pretty much the same thing.”


However, some participants viewed the concepts as more distinct, with security signaling issues around personal safety, financial matters and protection from external threats online:


“In my mind, privacy deals more on the side of personal issues while security deals with financial issues.”

“Security to me means a firewall, a secure sight and a good filter on your computer. Privacy is more like photos, and personal info.”

Privacy also signals a range of things that are considered to be personal

As with the focus group discussions, a slightly smaller portion of the survey responses (12%) used some variation of the word, “personal.” While online survey respondents most often used the term in the context of “personal information,” they also described privacy as personal in many other combinations, such as: “my personal business,” “personal life,” personal space,” “personal stuff” “my personal solitude,” and a “personal right.”

Many respondents associated privacy with the ability to keep some things secret or hidden

About one in ten (11%) responses included the word “secret” or some variation of things that are hidden. Respondents described privacy as: “keeping secret,” “secret, private, for your eyes only type of thing,” or as things that are “protected, secret, concealed.” Other responses suggested privacy as connected to having a “Hidden agenda” or things that are “secret, undercover.”

Other common themes that emerged from the open-ended responses were clustered around privacy as:

  • A set of rights, such as the “right to be let alone” (10%).
  • Others “staying out of my business” (9%).
  • Something people “don’t have” or “doesn’t exist” (9%).
  • Associated with information and the ability to control and limit access to it (8%).
  • Tied to the internet and technology (7%).
  • Things people want to keep to themselves and no one else (7%).
  • Associated with references to the National Security Agency (NSA) and Edward Snowden (5%).

Most have heard at least a little about government surveillance

Most have heard at least a little about government surveillance

Beyond specific references to government surveillance programs in the adults’ associations with the word “privacy,” almost all of the participants in our online panel said that they have heard at least something about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity.” And those who have heard the most about the government disclosures are more privacy sensitive across an array of measures in the survey.9

Some 43% of adults have heard “a lot” about this government surveillance, and another 44% had heard “a little.” Just 5% of adults in our panel said they had heard “nothing at all” about these programs.

Looking at demographics, we find that men were much more likely than women to say they have heard a lot about the NSA revelations (50% vs. 36%), and those ages 65 and older were more likely than younger age groups to have heard a lot (57% vs. 37% of those under age 50).10 Adults with higher levels of education and household income were also more likely to report hearing a lot compared with those who have lower levels of education. 

Older adults among most likely to have heard “a lot” about gov’t surveillance

Those who have heard “a lot” about government surveillance programs are also more aware of their own digital footprints

Surveillance awareness and self-searching

A majority of adults say that they keep track of their digital footprints, but those who have a high level of awareness about government surveillance are more likely to say they search for information about themselves online. Overall, six in ten (62%) of those who participated in our online panel have ever used a search engine to look up their own name or see what information about them is on the internet.11 Those who have heard a lot about government surveillance of communications are more likely to be self-searchers than those who have heard a little or nothing about it (71% vs 57%).12

Self-searching activity varies greatly across different groups, particularly by age, income, and household education. Adults under the age of 50 are far more likely to be “self-searchers” than those ages 50 and older, and adults with higher levels of household income and education stand out as especially likely to check up on their own digital footprints.

A majority of adults have searched for information about themselves online

Few feel it’s a “good thing” for society if people believe they are being watched online

Most do not think it’s a good thing for society if people believe they are being watched online

A majority of adults (62%) disagree with the statement “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online,” including 20% who “strongly disagree.” Another 36% do agree that online surveillance is good for society, including the 7% who say they “strongly agree.”

Attitudes about online surveillance vary greatly among different groups, particularly by age and education. For instance, adults ages 50 and older are generally less likely than younger adults to see online surveillance as beneficial. Those with lower levels of education are also more likely to be in favor of online surveillance, with 45% of those who have not attended college agreeing overall—compared with 33% of those with some college experience and 26% of college graduates.

Finally, adults who have heard more about government surveillance are more likely to think such oversight could have drawbacks: Just 23% of adults who have heard “a lot” about the NSA revelations think online surveillance is good for society, compared with 46% of those who have heard less about the NSA revelations.

Most Americans agree that citizens “should be concerned” about the government’s monitoring programs

Close to eight in ten (80%) American adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications. Just 18% “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with that notion.

Overall, 40% “strongly agree” that American citizens should be concerned, while 39% “agree.” Men are more likely than women to “strongly agree” that the monitoring programs are cause for concern (46% vs. 35%). However, there are no significant variations by age, income or education levels.

Those who have heard “a lot” about government surveillance programs are considerably more likely to hold strong views; 53% “strongly agree” that citizens should be concerned, compared with 33% of those who have heard only a little or nothing about the programs.

  1. A full discussion of the sample is available at the end of this report.
  2. This association is often communicated in various privacy policies directed at consumers with regard to data security. However, it is also worth noting here that a different concept of security may be evoked by the language of the Fourth Amendment, which emphasizes the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Specific references to the Fourth Amendment were coded separately, but some references to being “secure” could be overlapping in some cases.
  3. Other recent surveys have found correlations between privacy-related awareness and concern. See, Chris Jay Hoofnagle and Jennifer M. Urban’s discussion in “Alan Westin’s Privacy Homo Economicus,” available at:
  4. Adults ages 65 and older are also more likely to keep up with news in general:
  5. In May 2013, an RDD telephone survey of adults found that 56% of internet users had used a search engine to look up their own name and see what information is available about them online:
  6. While self-searching activity is associated with several measures of increased privacy-related sensitivity throughout the survey, it is also worth noting that self-searching can be one way to link IP addresses to individual users.
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