Many Americans have little to no understanding of what companies are doing with the data that is collected about them. At the same time, nearly all Americans encounter companies’ privacy policies at some point. This survey explores whether they fully read them and how much they understand about these policies.
But the practice of reading privacy policies doesn’t necessarily guarantee thoroughness. Among adults who say they ever read privacy policies before agreeing to their terms and conditions, only a minority (22%) say they read them all the way through before agreeing to their terms and conditions. It’s more common for these readers to say they either glance over it without it reading closely (43%) or say they only read it part of the way through. Among all U.S. adults, 13% say they read privacy policies all the way through, 21% read part of the way through and 26% glance over them.
There are few demographic differences among adults who read privacy policies in full. For example, those living in households with an annual income of $30,000 or less are twice as likely as those in households with an annual income of $75,000 or more to say they read all the way through (30% vs. 15%). And while 26% of adults ages 65 and older say they read privacy policies all the way through, that share falls to 15% among those ages 18 to 29.
A majority of adults who read privacy policies say they typically understand them
Roughly two-thirds of adults who read privacy policies say they typically understand a great deal (13%) or some (55%) of the policies that they read. Still, about one-third of this group has a lesser grasp of the privacy policies they read, including 29% who say they understand very little and 3% who do not understand at all. Among all U.S. adults, 8% say they understand privacy policies a great deal, 33% understand some, 18% understand very little and 2% do not understand them at all.
Americans have little confidence in companies’ accountability with their data
When asked how confident they are that companies will do certain things to protect them, relatively few Americans feel assured. In fact, clear majorities of adults show little to no confidence that companies will follow through with certain actions.
Just 21% of adults say they are very (3%) or somewhat (18%) confident that companies will publicly admit mistakes and take responsibility when they misuse or compromise their users’ personal data, while 79% of adults are “not too confident” or “not confident at all” about this. A similar share (24%) are confident that a company will be held accountable by the government if they misuse or compromise their data, while 75% are not confident about this.
Even though majorities still have little confidence in companies, about one-third of adults or more are at least somewhat confident in companies to use personal information in ways they feel comfortable with (31%), promptly notify them if personal data has been misused or compromised (35%) or follow what their privacy policies say they will do with personal information (42%).
Americans have varying levels of comfort with companies using their personal data in different ways
As a whole, the public feels more comfortable with companies using their personal information for certain purposes than others. For example, 57% of adults say they are very or somewhat comfortable with companies using their personal data to help companies improve their fraud prevention systems. Americans’ views are split on companies using their personal data to help them develop new products: 50% are at least somewhat comfortable, and 49% are not too comfortable or not comfortable at all.
Adults are less positive toward other ways that companies may use their data. About a third of adults (36%) say they are at least somewhat comfortable with companies sharing their personal data with outside groups doing research that might help them improve society, but a larger share (64%) say they would be uncomfortable with this practice.
Younger adults are generally more comfortable with these uses of their private data, while older adults are less comfortable. Adults under 50 years old are more likely than those who are 50 and older to be at least somewhat comfortable with their personal data being shared with outside groups doing research that might help improve society (42% vs. 29%). By comparison, adults ages 50 and older are more likely than those under 50 to not be comfortable with this (70% vs. 58%).
There are partisan differences on some of these companies’ uses of personal data. Democrats, including independents who lean to the Democratic Party, are more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to be comfortable with companies sharing their personal data with outside groups doing research that might help improve society (42% vs. 28%) and using their data to help improve their fraud prevention systems (61% vs. 54%).
Only about one-third of adults say they understand current data protection laws
Americans were asked how much they understand the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy. Some 37% say they understand the laws and regulations some (33%) or a great deal (3%). Nearly two-thirds (63%) of adults say they do not understand the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy. This includes 49% who say they understand the laws “very little” and 14% who do not understand them at all.
Americans who are more knowledgeable about how their data is being used are more likely to say they understand privacy-related laws and protections. Among adults who have a great deal or some understanding of how companies use their data, 56% say they understand at least some about current data privacy protection laws and regulations; compared with 24% among those who understand very little or nothing about how their data is used by companies.
A similar pattern exists when it comes to government use of data: 59% of those who understand a great deal or some about how their data is used by government say they understand at least some about the data privacy laws and regulations versus 30% among those who understand very little or none about how their data is used. Adults who believe they don’t benefit from how companies or the government uses their data are also more likely to have little understanding of these privacy laws.
Americans strongly favor more government regulation of consumer data
When asked how much government regulation there should be around what companies can do with their customers’ personal information, 75% of adults say there should be more regulation than there is now. About one-in-ten (8%) feel companies should be regulated less than they are now, while 16% say there should be the about same amount of regulation.
Although a majority of both Republicans and Democrats agree that companies use of personal data should be regulated more than they are now, Democrats (including independents who lean towards the Democratic party) are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to believe there should be more government regulation of what companies can do with their customers’ personal information (81% vs. 70%).
There are also differences by the amount of attention people to privacy-related news. Adults who follow privacy news closely are also more likely than those who don’t to say there should be more government regulation (79% vs. 68%).
But when given a choice of whether they favor better tools for consumers or stricter laws to safeguard people’s personal information, a somewhat higher share of the public favored better consumer tools. Fully 55% of adults say better tools for allowing people to control their personal information themselves would be a more effective way to safeguard people’s personal information. On the other hand, 44% of Americans say that stronger laws governing what companies can and cannot do with people’s personal information would be the more effective strategy.