Internet companies have run amok with our personal data, and people aren't entirely sure what to do about it, judging from the results of a new survey.
More than 90 percent of Americans feel they've lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies, particularly for advertising purposes, according to the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center, published Wednesday.
Eighty percent expressed concern over how third parties like advertisers accessed the data they share on social media sites. Pew did not gather the names of which sites specifically respondents meant, but you could likely venture a guess.
The survey, which polled 607 adults online, was the Washington, D.C.-based think tank's first in a series to tackle Americans' views toward privacy after the leaks around government surveillance made by Edward Snowden last year.
The majority of respondents did indeed say that people should be concerned about whether the government is listening in on their phone calls, or viewing their online communications and other sensitive data.
But beyond government surveillance, the findings also reflect people's attitudes amid the increasing sophistication by which Internet companies leverage people's data for advertising.
"It's a bundle of concerns," said Lee Rainie, one of Pew's lead researchers on the project, in an interview. "It's partly surveillance, it's partly tracking, and this generalized sense that I'm losing control of my identity and my data," he said.
The constant flood of stories related to data breaches, whether it's at Target, Snapchat, or P.F. Chang's, don't help either.
But voicing concern about the level of access companies, governments and other groups have to data is one thing; taking action in response is another.
Some respondents said they have taken actions to protect their privacy, like using a pseudonym, but a majority of respondents agreed that achieving anonymity online is not possible.
People's concerns around privacy might be part of the trade-off in using a free service. Some 55 percent of respondents said they were willing to share "some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free."
Fewer people might be willing to make that trade-off, however, if they understood how bits of information about them is pulled together and sold to companies through complex processes, said Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies digital marketing and online privacy.
"These findings reflect a major tension at the core of people's relationship with the Internet," he said in an interview.
It's a tension that goes back many years. In a 1999 survey conducted by Turow, parents characterized the Internet as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he said, because they were both afraid of it, and considered it an important and useful service.
But companies are now getting smarter in tracking people's online behavior across devices. Google and Facebook are refining their techniques for connecting the ads people see online to whether they bought items in a physical store. Facebook's recently relaunched Atlas system lets partnered advertisers leverage Facebook members' data across the wider Internet.
To preserve privacy, the recommendation to delete cookie files doesn't really apply anymore, because more tracking is being done on mobile where cookies don't work.
Perhaps instead people should contact companies like Google and Facebook, and ask them to be more transparent about exactly what data they sell, and to whom, Turow said.
Government agencies like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission can help to preserve privacy too, or at least help companies become more transparent. Snapchat entered into an agreement earlier this year with the FTC to settle charges that it deceived users about the amount of personal data it collects.
Pew's Rainie said the nonprofit would explore more of the responses people say they can take in the group's upcoming surveys.
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