Most Americans Believe They Are Being Tracked by Corporations and the Government

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

(CN) – A strong majority of Americans believe they are being spied upon and tracked by private companies and the government on a regular basis, according to a report released by Pew Research Center Friday.

“It is such a common condition of modern life that roughly six-in-ten U.S. adults say they do not think it is possible to go through daily life without having data collected about them by companies or the government,” the authors of the report stated.

The study echoes the type of anxiety George Orwell tried to evince upon the publication of 1984, the famed dystopian novel about a surveillance state that regiments citizens’ behavior by prying into every aspect of their daily lives.

“Big Brother is watching you,” is the maxim ubiquitously on display in the world of the novel. In 2019, the fictional concept of Big Brother had been replaced by the real-world concept of Big Data.

While Orwell wrote his book in the late 1940s, many of the themes brought to bear are now common features of daily lives, according to Pew’s survey of the American public.

And Americans are uneasy about this intrusion.

Eight in ten respondents say the risks they face due to the collection and storage or their personal data by large technology companies outweigh the benefits. Nearly 66% say the same about government collection.

“Most also feel they have little or no control over how these entities use their personal information,” the study says.

In fact, 84% of those surveyed say they have no control over what the government can collect about them, with 81% saying the same about companies. Once the trend is broken down into components, the trend still holds.

American adults feel they have no control over who can access the search terms they use while perusing the internet. About 28% feel they are not in control of whether the government or private companies can access information about their physical location.

This lack of control has materialized as a major concern for many of the individuals surveyed, as 79% of the adults polled said they are either very or somewhat concerned about how companies are using their data. As it relates to the government, only 64% have concerns about how it uses the data.

Arif Alikan, who is the officer of constitutional policing and policy for the Los Angeles Police Department, told the crowd at a recent Heritage Foundation event that concerns over private data collection versus government collection are valid.

“The question becomes qualitatively how much does the government know about everybody,” he said. “It is certainly much less than what the private sector knows. The full scope of what the private sector knows is probably more classified than most classified information.”

Jamil Jaffer, with the National Security Institute, said during the same Heritage Foundation panel on privacy that U.S. laws constrain the government from collecting data on private citizens because it has a lawful monopoly on the use of force.

“In the U.S., as a general matter we don’t think about constraining private actors in the same way because we say,’Look, you are free to contract the way you want to,’” he said. “If you decide to make a deal with Google and they give you a free email account and access to all these great search engines and you give them access to all your data, then that’s on you.”

But both men admitted there may not be a robust understanding in the American public about the extent to which companies gather personal information and how they leverage it once it is gathered.

The Pew study found that a majority of Americans (59%) had little to no understanding of what private companies do with the data they collect. An even greater percentage of American adults (79%) felt the same way about the government.

Part of the problem, according to the study, hinges on the privacy policies.

While 97% of adults acknowledge they have been asked at one time or another to approve a privacy policy, only one-in-five of the surveyed adults said they always or often read the policies.

“There is also a general lack of understanding about data privacy laws among the general public,” the study says. “63% of Americans say they understand very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy.”

But a lack of concern does not necessarily translate into complacency.

Three-quarters of the Americans surveyed said they favor more government regulation of what the private sector can do with their personal data. There is an increasing movement to pass a federal privacy law modeled on the California Consumer Privacy Act, signed into law last year.

The law allows consumers to know what data about them is being collected, know whether it is being sold, refuse the sale of their personal information, access their personal data, demand a private business delete their personal information and be free from discrimination due to exercising privacy rights.

Colin Sebastian, a privacy attorney with Robert W. Baird & Co., predicted in 2018 the federal government would pass a privacy law in the calendar year. While that has not materialized, the public appetite for more clarity about corporate use of personal data may make such a law an inevitability.

The European Union has already passed a law that gives its citizens agency over their personal information and data.

Many of the adults surveyed as part of the Pew Research study said such laws are necessary to hold private companies to account.

“Personal privacy means everything about me personally is private unless I personally opt-in to allow it to be public,” said one man when asked to define privacy in the digital era. “Opt-in means not by default or convoluted user agreement that circumvents the purpose of privacy laws.”

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