Key takeaways on Americans’ views about privacy, surveillance and data-sharing
(Thomas M. Scheer/EyeEm via Getty Images)

In key ways, today’s digitally networked society runs on quid pro quos: People exchange details about themselves and their activities for services and products on the web or apps. Many are willing to accept the deals they are offered in return for sharing insight about their purchases, behaviors and social lives. At times, their personal information is collected by government on the grounds that there are benefits to public safety and security.

A majority of Americans are concerned about this collection and use of their data, according to a new report from Pew Research Center.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the report:

1 Americans are concerned about how much data is being collected about them, and many feel their information is less secure than it used to be. The majority of Americans say they are at least somewhat concerned about how much data is collected about them by both companies (79%) and the government (64%). Additionally, seven-in-ten Americans say they feel their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago. This compares with just 6% who say they feel their information is more secure, and about one-quarter (24%) who feel it’s about the same.

2 A majority of the public believes much of their online activities are being tracked. More Americans say they think that what they do online or on their cellphone is being tracked than believe their offline activities are tracked. They are also more likely to believe companies track more of their activities (both online and off) than think that the government is collecting information on them. For example, the majority of Americans believe that all or most of what they do online and on their cellphone is being tracked by companies (72%), while just 47% think the same of the government. Smaller shares believe all or most of their offline activities (like where they go and who they talk to) are being tracked by companies (31%) and the government (24%).

3 Large shares of Americans do not think it is possible to go about daily life without corporate and government entities collecting data about them. About six-in-ten Americans believe it is not possible to go through daily life without having their data collected by companies (62%) or the government (63%). However, 38% of U.S. adults do believe it is possible to go untracked by companies in daily life, and 36% say the same about the government.

4 A majority of U.S. adults have heard at least a little about how companies and other organizations use their data to target them with ads. One way that companies and other organizations use data – like people’s purchasing and credit histories, and their online browsing and search behaviors – is to build out user data profiles in order to serve them targeted ads, offer special deals or assess how risky people might be as customers. Some 77% of U.S. adults have heard at least a little bit about this concept, and, of those who have, 75% say they think all or most companies use this tactic to help understand their customers.

5 Very few Americans believe they understand what is being done with the data collected about them. Small shares of Americans say they understand a great deal about what is being done with the data collected about them by companies (6%) or the government (4%). By contrast, around eight-in-ten Americans (78%) say they understand very little or nothing about what the government does with the personal data it collects, compared with a smaller share – though still a majority – who say the same about company-collected data (59%).

6 Almost all Americans have been asked to agree to privacy policies, but fewer actually read them. Some 97% of U.S. adults have ever been asked to agree to company privacy policy, which includes 25% who say they are asked to do this almost daily. Yet only about 20% of Americans overall say they always (9%) or often (13%) read these policies before agreeing to them, and 36% say they never read them. Among those who say they ever read such policies, about one-in-five (22%) say they read privacy policies all the way through and that they are more likely to say they glance over these policies without reading them closely.

7 Most Americans see more risks than benefits from personal data collection. About eight-in-ten (81%) Americans say the potential risks outweigh the benefits when it comes to companies collecting data. When government collection of data is considered, 66% of adults agree. Americans don’t feel they benefit personally from the data collection, either. Just 5% of adults say they benefit a great deal from the data companies collect about them, and 4% say the same about government’s data collection.

8 Americans vary in their attitudes toward data-sharing in the pursuit of public good. Though many Americans don’t think they benefit much from the collection of their data, and they find that the potential risks of this practice outweigh the benefits, there are some scenarios in which the public is more likely to accept the idea of data-sharing. In line with findings in a 2015 Center survey showing that some Americans are comfortable with trade-offs in sharing data, about half of U.S. adults (49%) say it is acceptable for the government to collect data about all Americans in order to assess potential terrorist threats. That compares with 31% who feel it is unacceptable to collect data about all Americans for that purpose. By contrast, just one-quarter say it is acceptable for smart speaker makers to share users’ audio recordings with law enforcement to help with criminal investigations, versus 49% who find that unacceptable.

9 The majority of the public does not feel in control of the data collected about them. More than eight-in-ten (84%) of Americans say they feel very little or no control over the data collected about them by the government, and 81% say the same when company data collection is considered. Just 4% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of control over data collected by the government, and 3% agree regarding companies’ collection of information.

10 Americans say they have very little understanding of current data protection laws, and most are in favor of more government regulation. Just 3% of U.S. adults say they have “a lot” of understanding of the current laws and regulations in place to protect their data privacy, with 63% saying they understand very little or not at all. A majority of Americans say they have little or no understanding of existing data protection lawsHowever, the majority of Americans support more government regulation in this area. Some 75% of U.S. adults say there should be more government regulation of what companies can do with customers’ personal information. These numbers echo figures from an earlier Pew Research Center phone survey from 2013, not based on the American Trends Panel, which found that 68% of internet users believed the current laws weren’t good enough at protecting people’s privacy online.

These findings come from a survey of 4,272 U.S. adults conducted on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel between June 3 and 17, 2019. It has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 1.87 percentage points.

See full topline results and methodology.

CORRECTION (Nov. 9, 2021): A previous version of this post contained a hyperlink to an inaccurate external website. The link has been removed. None of the study findings or conclusions are affected.

Brooke Auxier  is a former research associate focusing on internet and technology at Pew Research Center.
Lee Rainie  is director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.