Why Have Americans Given Up On Privacy?

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Assaults on our right to privacy have become commonplace, despite activist groups (and a considerable number of writers on MakeUseOf) objecting to mass surveillance. Our confidentiality is of importance to all of us.

But a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication concluded that:

“[A] majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data.”

Is this true? Is it a wider issue affecting more than just Americans? And why?

In Exchange For: Financial Benefits


The Trade-off Fallacy mulls over the idea that Americans give over personal data in exchange for certain benefits – deals, free Wi-Fi, and memberships, for instance. The study, however, concludes that the majority think they’re not given a fair deal. Of the 1,506 surveyed, 91% disagree that companies giving a discount in exchange for them collecting data about them without their knowledge is a fair deal.

It begs the question, why do we still relinquish our privacy?

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The findings suggest it could be partly due to ignorance, perpetuated by marketers in order to continue mass collection. 69%, for example, incorrectly think it’s illegal for pharmacies to sell on information about which over-the-counter drugs they buy; 65% think that a website’s privacy policy means they won’t sell on your information to a third-party without notification; and furthermore:

“62% do not know that price-comparison sites like Expedia or Orbitz are not legally required to include the lowest travel prices.”

But this isn’t about a nation purposely ignoring the facts; these are just common misconceptions, or if you will, deceptions on the part of corporate giants. When it comes to pharmacies, it’s natural to think they’re forbidden from divulging medical data, just as doctors are. A website’s Privacy Policy… Well, it’s in the title, isn’t it? And aren’t you going to Expedia because they’re supposed to give you the best deal?

Stick with me here: these beliefs are understandable. There are plausible reasons. Ignorance is still ignorance, but everyone is ignorant of vast amounts of information, and at least the blame can lie largely at the door of marketers, not the public.

You would think, then, if the public were aware of this deceit, more of a fuss would be made of privacy leaks. But perhaps not so…

Because the really worrying part of this survey is a shocking conclusion about those who know their data’s being sold on and used, as C|Net notes:

“The more people actually did know about the realities of online marketing, the more resigned they were to accept the inevitable and utter lack of privacy.”

In Exchange For: Safety?


A separate study by the Pew Research Centre came to similar conclusions, worryingly. It does, though, view this seemingly laissez-faire attitude from a different vantage point, and therefore brings an extra caveat to consider: terrorism.

It’s not solely financial benefits that make us surrender some freedom, but also fear.

If the Government pass rulings infringing on privacy rights in exchange for protection from terrorists, surely that’s acceptable? After all, the media obsesses over Daesh (better known as ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and other extremist cells, and such saturation naturally means widespread concern. The problem here is how difficult it is to stand up for something as intangible as human rights when the opposing argument is supposed to bring an end to suffering.

But those surveyed by Pew disagree. Their research shows:

“A majority of Americans (54%) disapprove of the U.S. government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts… In spring 2014, 74% said they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety… This view had hardened since December 2004, when 60% said they should not have to give up more privacy and freedom to be safe from terrorism.”

Interestingly, the list of official terrorist incidents in 2004 is extensive… yet it’s also expansive in 2014 – perhaps even more so! This might account for another opined result from Pew:

“Americans also say anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect them.”

This, they argue, is of more importance to Americans than their privacy: however great their sacrifices, more should be done to keep the nation safe. Furthermore, Pew finds there’s a degree of futility; that we are troubled by who has access to our data – from the National Security Agency to social media like Facebook, from drones to Internet giant, Google – but feel very little can be done about it.

And that’s a great point. We haven’t given up on our own privacy… but how do we fight for it?

Is It The Same Throughout the World?


This is also the case in the UK, where terrorism is blamed in order for the Government to introduce The Communications Data Bill, nicknamed the “Snooper’s Charter”, and revised as the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. This would force telecommunication companies to keep metadata records of its users for at least 12 months. People generally kicked up a fuss, but largely because it threatens the existence of WhatsApp and other encrypted instant messengers.

Nonetheless, it appears to still be going through. In fact, some parts of it were already passed in November 2015 – to little fanfare. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, nicknamed DRIP, is similar but it expires this year; it was rushed through parliament so no one could object before it was actually passed.

In this case, it’s not that the British public are complacent; it’s that they’re given no choice. Still, controversies over DRIP didn’t last. It’s naive to think there will be much outrage at the Snooper’s Charter.

EU courts deemed it unlawful on Humanitarian grounds, and signed rules to aid consumers in keeping their data to themselves – so it appears that at least those 28 nations are concerned over their citizens’ privacy. The EU Data Protection Directive is definitely a step in the right direction.

The Indian Government, meanwhile, wants similar surveillance as the UK, but the Centre for Internet & Society notes that this is of considerable worry to its nationals:

“[T]hough these provisions create a framework for interception they are missing a number of internationally recognized safeguards and practices, such as notice to the individual, judicial oversight, and transparency requirements. For many years there has been running public discourse about the surveillance that the Indian government has been undertaking. This discourse is growing and is now being linked to privacy and the need for India to enact a privacy legislation.”

It might seem that China, whose Golden Shield Project (or “Great Firewall”) blocks out many websites, would have looser privacy laws, but things are apparently changing – at least commercially. The Chinese might be willing for their Government to keep tabs on their activities, but the officials have introduced a number of regulations on the private sector.

What You Can Do

1984 - 1

It’s extremely ignorant to think only American citizens are complacent to infringements to their rights. In fact, it’s ignorant to think it’s just plain complacency. People haven’t given up. They might think it futile to rally against authorities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t. You can fight for your freedom.

Educating yourself and others is perhaps the biggest step. That goes beyond flicking through George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and recommending it to anyone who listens. Take in as many books about online privacy as you can. Don’t be afraid of social media either: Twitter might seem like an opportunity to leak private information yourself, but it also gives advocates a chance to talk about their worries.

You could also go really paranoid and take precautions at every turn.

Wrestle back your privacy from big firms like Facebook. Or switch from Google to a search engine that doesn’t track you. But what can you do to make your voice heard when battling The Man?

Write to your local senator or MP. Find out who’s fighting the good fight on your behalf. Sign or even start a petition on Change.org. Even if you think it’s useless, if everyone took a stand like you’re doing, the world might be a very different place.

Image Credits: black man holding binoculars by Asier Romero via Shutterstock, cctv graffito by man_with_beard; For Whats It’s Worth by Plastic Jesus; and IMG_7318 (Protesters) by Christiaan Triebert.

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