Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

How Americans see digital privacy issues amid the COVID-19 outbreak

(SOPA Images/Contributor via Getty Images)
(SOPA Images/Contributor via Getty Images)

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has brought privacy and surveillance concerns to the forefront – from hacked video conferencing sessions to proposed government tracking of people’s cellphones as a measure to limit and prevent the spread of the virus. Over the past year, Pew Research Center has surveyed Americans on their views related to privacy, personal data and digital surveillance.

Here are 10 key findings that stand out.

How we did this

How we did this

Pew Research Center conducted these surveys to understand how Americans think about privacy, data collection, surveillance and smartphone tracking, including in the context of the new coronavirus outbreak.

One study referenced in this piece surveyed 4,917 U.S. adults from April 7 to 12, 2020. Here are the questions used in that survey, along with the responses, and its methodology. For another report, we surveyed 4,272 U.S. adults from June 3 to 17, 2019. Here are the questions used for the report, along with the responses, and its methodology. Everyone who took part in both surveys is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. Recruiting our panelists by phone or mail ensures that nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. This gives us confidence that any sample can represent the whole population (see our Methods 101 explainer on random sampling).

To further ensure that each survey reflects a balanced cross-section of the nation, the data is weighted to match the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

More Americans think location tracking through cellphones won’t make a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19 than say it would help

Six-in-ten Americans say that if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone, it wouldn’t make much of a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19, according a survey of U.S. adults conducted April 7 to 12. Smaller shares of Americans say it would help a lot (16%) or help a little (22%).

Americans divided on whether it’s acceptable for the government to track people who have tested positive for COVID-19 through their cellphone

Americans are split on the acceptability of using cellphone data to trace people’s movements. About half of Americans (52%) say it would be at least somewhat acceptable for the government to use people’s cellphones to track the location of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in order to understand how the virus may be spreading, according to the April survey. Still, 48% of U.S. adults find this practice to be at least somewhat unacceptable. There is far less support when Americans are asked about the government using cellphones to track people’s locations to ensure they are complying with social distancing recommendations: 62% say this is somewhat or very unacceptable, while just 37% say it is somewhat or very acceptable.

Seven-in-ten Americans said in 2019 that their personal info was less secure than five years earlier

Before the outbreak, Americans strongly believed their personal data was more vulnerable than in the past. In a June 2019 survey, 70% of Americans said their personal information was less secure than it was five years earlier. Just 6% of Americans said they felt their information was more secure than in the past, while 24% said their personal information was about as secure as it was five years earlier. Experts have suggested that data security could be threatened for companies shifting to remote work – as well as ordinary people who are spending more time online –  during the coronavirus outbreak.

A majority of Americans said last year that they were concerned about how companies or the government were using their personal data, but few said they understood what was being done with their information. Roughly eight-in-ten adults (79%) said they were at least somewhat concerned about how companies were using the data collected about them, according to the June 2019 survey. At the same time, 64% of Americans said they were somewhat or very concerned about government collection of their personal data. Yet relatively few Americans said they understood a great deal what was being done with the data collected about them by companies (6%) or the government (4%).

In 2019, a majority of black and Hispanic adults believed the government was tracking at least most of their online and cellphone activity

About seven-in-ten Americans (72%) believe that all, almost all or most of what they do online or while using a cellphone is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies, according to the June 2019 survey. Close to half of Americans (47%) said the same about their online activities being tracked by the government.

Over the past few weeks, public health professionals have discussed location tracking for the purposes of contact tracing and limiting the spread of COVID-19.

In the same 2019 survey, black and Hispanic Americans were more likely than white adults to say they believe the government is tracking all, almost all or most of their online activities.

Relatively few Americans said in 2019 that they personally benefit a lot from the data companies or the government collected about them, and a majority said the potential risks of data collection outweighed the benefits

When it comes to data collection, Americans see more risks than benefits. In the June 2019 survey, a majority of Americans said they benefited very little or not at all from the data collected about them by companies (72%) and the government (76%). Large shares also said the potential risks of this kind of data collection outweighed the benefits: 81% said this about data collected by companies and 66% said it about data collected by the government. Recently, however, some experts have been calling attention to the public health benefits of data collection related to the coronavirus.

Majorities favored the right to allow Americans to have medical data permanently deleted in 2019

Americans widely support the “right to be forgotten,” allowing people to remove personal information about themselves from public online searches or databases. When the Center asked Americans in June 2019 about medical data specifically, about seven-in-ten U.S. adults (69%) said all Americans should have the right to have medical data collected by a health provider permanently deleted by the people or organizations who have that information.

White adults, older Americans and those with higher levels of educational attainment and household incomes were more likely to say all Americans should have the right to have this information permanently deleted. For example, 77% of those with a college education or more said this should be a right for all Americans, compared with smaller shares of those with some college education (70%) or a high school diploma or less (61%).

Most Americans say they do not understand current privacy laws and regulations, but most favor more government regulation in this area. Six-in-ten Americans (63%) said in 2019 that they knew very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations currently in place to protect their data privacy; just 3% said they understood a great deal. However, three-quarters of Americans said they thought there should be more government regulation of what companies can do with their customers’ personal information; just 8% favored less regulation.

About half of Americans say they think twice about using products they see as having privacy issues. Last year, 52% of Americans said they had decided not to use a product or service because they were worried about how much personal information would be collected about them. When asked an open-ended follow-up question about a recent situation in which they decided not to use a product or service, one-in-five Americans said the products they decided not to use were websites. Smaller shares mentioned electronics (11%), social media (10%) and DNA, financial or health care services (10%).

The public often struggles with understanding key concepts related to digital privacy and data protection. In a series of questions asked in June 2019 to test Americans’ knowledge of digital topics, only a minority of adults correctly said that starting a URL with “https://” means the information entered on that site is encrypted (30%). A similarly small share (28%) could accurately identify an example of two-factor authentication. The COVID-19 outbreak has brought about increases in malicious online attacks and email scams, according to a warning from the U.S. Secret Service. Experts warn that many of these criminal efforts could especially impact individuals in high-risk populations and those with lower levels of digital and financial literacy and cybersecurity knowledge.