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Most Americans think they’re being constantly tracked—and that there’s nothing they can do

November 15, 2019
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More than 60% of Americans think it’s impossible to go through daily life without being tracked by companies or the government, according to a new Pew Research study. The results provide important context on the long-running question of how much Americans really care about privacy

Read the room: It’s not just that Americans (correctly) think companies are collecting their data. They don’t like it. About 69% of Americans are skeptical that companies will use their private information in a way they’re comfortable with, while 79% don’t believe that companies will come clean if they misuse the information. 

When it comes to who they trust, there are differences by race. About 73% of black Americans, for instance, are at least a little worried about what law enforcement knows about them, compared with 56% of white Americans. But among all respondents, more than 80% were concerned about what social-media sites and advertisers might know. 

Despite these concerns, more than 80% of Americans feel they have no control over how their information is collected. 

The small print: Very few people read privacy policies, the survey shows. That’s understandable. A review of 150 policies from major websites found that the average one takes about 18 minutes to read and requires at least a college-level reading ability. Few people have time for that—and even if they did, most people are forced to agree anyway if they really need the service.

How did we get here? It’s understandable that Americans are concerned. Ever since the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, there has been a constant parade of stories about how data is collected and monitored. Apps know our location and don’t keep it secret. They collect data about weight and menstrual cycles and pregnancy status and share the data with other companies. Apple let contractors hear private Siri recordings. Little-known companies collect data like Airbnb messages and food orders. Facial recognition technology is at airports and schools. Just this week, Google got access to the health data of millions of Americans by signing a deal with Ascension, a major hospital system. 

What’s next? There are some moves in the right direction. Google’s deal with Ascension has already sparked a federal probe. The California attorney general has been investigating Facebook for privacy violations. Activists are working to stop facial recognition from being used by both the public and private sectors. Some Democrats have introduced legislation that would give the Federal Trade Commission power to fine tech companies up to 4% of their annual revenue for privacy violations, which is a much bigger amount than current fines. Others have proposed a new federal agency to deal with digital privacy. So there’s more attention being paid to privacy than ever before. Still, it’s true that the average consumer can’t do a lot about personal data being collected, and it’ll be a while before that really changes.

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