Why Have Americans Given Up On Privacy?

Philip Bates 17-02-2016

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 3 Undeniable Reasons Why You Need Online Anonymity Some people don't believe in anonymity, but without it, lives can be ruined forever. Here's why you need online anonymity. Read More 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?


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 6 Things Hollywood Always Gets Wrong About Technology From the depiction of detectives doing things that just can't be done yet, to showing us last century’s gadgets being the standard for the future, Hollywood often gets technology wrong. Read More , but everyone is ignorant These Kanye Fans Don't Know Who Paul McCartney Is, And That's Okay Kanye West and Sir Paul McCartney collaborated on a new track. You'll totally believe what happened next. Read More 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 Your Interest in Privacy Will Ensure You're Targeted by the NSA Yes, that's right. If you care about privacy, you may be added to a list. Read More to social media like Facebook What Does Facebook Know About You? Why You Should Delete Facebook What does Facebook really know about you? One thing's for sure: if you want online privacy, Facebook is best avoided. Read More , from drones 5 Times Drones Have Breached Personal Privacy Drones are fun, but the increasing use of devices with mounted cameras poses a privacy risk in many places without drone privacy legislation. Here are 5 occasions where drones have breached the privacy of unsuspecting... Read More to Internet giant, Google Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Read More – 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 How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to resurrect the "Snooper's Charter", a privacy-breaching set of new measures to enable enhanced monitoring of communications by the security services. Can it be stopped? Read More , nicknamed the “Snooper’s Charter”, and revised as the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. This would force telecommunication companies to keep metadata records Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More of its users for at least 12 months. People generally kicked up a fuss, but largely because it threatens the existence of WhatsApp Why Snapchat & iMessage Could Really Be Banned In The UK Speaking to a room full of party activists in Nottingham, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that encryption for messaging would be banned should his party gain a majority at the next General Election. Read More 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 Privacy In The UK: The Data Retention And Investigation Powers Bill Read More , 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 How To Quickly Check If Your Site Is Visible Behind The Great Firewall Of China The Great Firewall of China, officially known as the Golden Shield project, uses a variety of methods to block foreign websites that the Chinese government doesn’t like. The Chinese government doesn’t publish a list of... Read More , 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 6 Books About Online Privacy & Security You Need to Read As online privacy and security continue to be spicy hot topics, a whole range of high quality books are being written on the subject. Here are just six we recommend you read. Read More 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 Snowden's on Twitter, Here Are 7 More Privacy Advocates to Follow Snowden is hardly the only privacy advocate on Twitter, or the world's leading authority on the subject. The social network has several prominent voices who care about user data and how to protect it. Read More .

1984 (Signet Classics) 1984 (Signet Classics) Buy Now On Amazon $6.94

You could also go really paranoid and take precautions at every turn The Paranoid Conspiracy-Theorist's Guide To Online Privacy & Security Can you stay anonymous online? With not too much and the use of easy to use web-based encryption, security and privacy tools, we believe you can. Let us show you how. Read More .

Wrestle back your privacy 8 Things to Do in an Hour to Wrestle Back Privacy From Facebook We all know that Facebook guzzles as much of your information as it can. But how can you get control of your privacy again? Quitting Facebook is an option, but other options are available. Read More from big firms like Facebook. Or switch from Google to a search engine that doesn’t track you Get A Better Search Experience With Duck Duck Go It seems that there are a couple of services and Linux distributions (such as Linux Mint) that are switching over to Duck Duck Go as their default search engine. So why the heck are they... Read More . 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 Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? There are several Internet activism groups who are fighting on your behalf for privacy. They are doing their best to educate netizens as well. Here are just a few of them that are incredibly active. Read More on your behalf. Sign or even start a petition on 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.

Related topics: Online Privacy, Surveillance.

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  1. dragonmouth
    June 7, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    One reason I did not see mentioned in the article is "convenience". Just to have the convenience of a site load one second faster, people are willing to allow all kinds of cookies to be stored on their PCs. Just to have the convenience of targeted ads, people will give up all kinds of personal information. Just to have the convenience of controlling all their electronic devices from their smartphone, people will use leaky WiFi and allow anybody with the expertise to hack them.

    People demand convenience over security and/or privacy.

  2. dragonmouth
    August 25, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    We have not "given up" on privacy. It has been steadily stripped away from us. Government's alphabet agencies, under the guise and pretense of "fighting terrorism" collect any and all data they can. Our illustrious "representatives" are aiding and abetting these agencies by passing laws that allow more and wider access to the citizens' personal data.

    Private companies are convinced that it is their Constitutionally guaranteed right to collect data anybody that contacts them for any reason. Quite often we "give over" our data not for any benefits but to get the service the company provides. On several occasions, I was informed by Google that if I wanted a certain service, I would have to install "a modern browser, Chrome". Why, so Google can collect more of my data without my knowledge?

    "switch from Google to a search engine that doesn’t track you."
    Ostensibly a good advice. However, Google has 4 or 5 settings in Firefox, which is a competitor to Chrome, that allows Google to collect data on the searches I do, the sites I visit, etc. These settings are buried deep in about:config and have to be changed manually. For average PC users, switching from Google to DuckDuckGo and from Chrome to Firefox, would not accomplish much. Google would still be able to track their activities.

    "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"
    Are these pharmacies somehow exempt from HIPAA?

    "Ignorance is still ignorance, but everyone is ignorant of vast amounts of information"
    Even lawyers are not aware of all the laws on the books. That is why they specialize in only small areas of the law. New laws are passed literally on a daily basis and a vast majority of them are never announced to the general public. EX: In 1986 US Congress passed a bunch of corrections and adjustments to the US Tax Code. These corrections were listed in a 1200 page addendum to the existing code. How can anybody but a tax lawyer or a CPA digest, let alone understand, that volume of legalese?! How are you and me supposed to be aware of all the laws affecting our privacy rights, let alone know how to use them to protect ourselves?

    "Wrestle back your privacy from big firms like Facebook."
    Great slogan. Great soundbite. Worthless in practice and impossible to do. Once Facebook has your data, it is easier to wrestle money away from the IRS than it is to get data back from Facebook (or Google). Even if you sever all ties with Facebook and delete your account, countless backups still exist.

  3. Anonymous
    April 16, 2016 at 5:25 am

    An online marketer, like myself, would argue that the non-personally identifiable information collected through browser cookies only serves to improve user experience.. and for those who disagree, there are many tools and browser plugs available to prevent the collection of browsing habits, and block paid ads that our favorite websites serve to all visitors. As for the government's mass collection of user data, those who color within the lines probably don't worry much about it. Love me or hate me - I love our country and have faith in whatever measures have been put in place by the government to protect us. The real problem lies somewhere within the dark web. Where identity thieves are stealing our information, and then selling or abusing it for their own personal gain. The fight shouldn't be against the government, it should be against finding a way to stop criminal organizations and groups from causing damages to millions of unknowing individuals every year.

  4. Anonymous
    February 17, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    "We" haven't given up on privacy, we've had it STOLEN from us by a tyrannical form of government.

  5. stephen
    February 17, 2016 at 8:50 pm


  6. Anonymous
    February 17, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    "Take in as many books about online privacy as you can."
    All those books and $2.75 will get you on the subway in NY City but will not do a whit to restore or even maintain your privacy.

    It is a bit disingenuous of MUO to publish articles on privacy when it has at least 10 trackers running on tits site.

  7. Anonymous
    February 17, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Fist, let's not confuse "fair" deal with just deal. "Fair" is a subjective concept on how people think others should act rather than have a right to act. People frequently use their rights in a manner I consider unfair.

    Second, the actual responsibility to keep your private info/life private rather than public is yours . Certainly there is no duty for others to inform you of when you may be doing things that you would otherwise not want to do.

    The Apple case in not so much a case about privacy violation than your ability to keep your information private through your association with Apple. The state's claim that it may tell you and Apple how you may associate (and for what purpose) is none of the state's business unless that action itself violates someone's rights

    . Any probable cause the state has in any specific case to look into the details of your associations (which are otherwise determined by you and your associate) certainly does not apply market wide through some preemptive legislation like encryption control or gun control.

    • dragonmouth
      August 25, 2017 at 12:36 pm

      "The state's claim that it may tell you and Apple how you may associate (and for what purpose) is none of the state's business unless that action itself violates someone's rights"
      Such the State's 'right' to monitor any and all data. :-)

  8. TT
    February 17, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    I ll tell you why so many of us give up a lot, its because we get beaten down, its too much to stop it all, in order to use Quiet Hours on my windows phone I have to have Cortana enabled, why? I had a blackberry phone 15 years ago that had a better working feature that didnt need to collect data!
    I installed MS Publisher 2016 to do a job for a client, I spent more time blocking and uninstalling stuff like Onenote, OneDrive, and a host of other things. I could go on and on about all kinds of this sort of thing and I spend a lot of time trying to keep my life as private as possible but in the end it comes down to the fact that in order to use things, everything, data is collected, privacy is going to be lost, its tiresome. Its way deeper then just on your computer or phone, its your drivers license, your auto insurance, your credit/debit card purchases, your credit score, your health history, your property tax bill, the amount of aggregate data about each one of us is staggering, and all the stuff we do to try to stop it only slows it down a little, they are winning, period, so most people just want to go about their day and not fight the system. My self included really, when I am at my camp in the summer, drinking beers, grilling a steak, hanging by the firepit, well I dont care who knows what about me at that point.