US concerns about online privacy present opportunity, experts say

Internet companies will move toward offering more privacy-enhancing tools, some privacy advocates say

Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO at the Center for Democracy and Technology, argued for strong net neutrality rules before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO at the Center for Democracy and Technology, argued for strong net neutrality rules before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

A new survey saying an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults believe they have lost control over how private companies collect their personal information may be an opportunity in disguise for Web-based companies, some privacy experts said.

Eight in 10 U.S. adults are concerned about the government's monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications, but an even greater percentage believe they have lost control over how private companies collect their personal information, according to a report, released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, based on a survey conducted this past January.

The survey seemed to show conflicted views from Internet users on privacy, however, with Pew noting that U.S. perceptions of privacy are "varied."

A solid majority of the people responding to the survey -- 64 percent -- said they believe the U.S. government should more heavily regulate advertisers and other businesses as a way to protect privacy. But 55 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free."

The survey shows that Internet users' views about privacy and the technology tools they use is "nuanced," said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank focused on privacy issues. Many Internet users have deep concerns about privacy following leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, but they haven't abandoned Internet services, he said.

"The sense of general unease about technology is, in reality, being outweighed by the desire people have to share their cat pictures with each other and to use the tools," he said. "We clearly have a love-hate relationship with the technology."

Only 24 percent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online." More than six in 10 said they would like to do more to protect the privacy of their personal information online.

The survey suggests "that there is both widespread concern about government surveillance among the American public and a lack of confidence in the security of core communications channels," said Mary Madden, senior researcher at Pew's Internet Project. "At the same time, there's an overwhelming sense that consumers have lost control over the way their personal information is collected and used by companies."

While the survey shows a distrust of some online services, the results also present an opportunity for technology companies to offer new tools to give Internet users greater control of their data, Polonetsky said. Internet users seem to want more help in efforts to protect their privacy, he said.

The survey, while clearly showing significant public concerns about online privacy, offers a "real upside" for technology companies that can provide users more control over how their data is used, Polonetsky said.

While many people seem pessimistic about the direction of online privacy protections, several large Internet companies are beginning to take steps to give users more control and to provide more transparency about data collection, said Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO of digital rights group the Center for Democracy and Technology.

One of CDT's goals is to develop more tools, both educational and technological, that help people protect their privacy online, she said. The Internet is still in its "early days" of figuring out what acceptable privacy rules and practices are, O'Connor added.

"There's still a huge knowledge gap between the individual citizen and the companies and the government about what the rules are," she said. "But people should not give up hope that we can't solve this; we absolutely can solve it."

The survey was conducted about six months after Snowden began leaking information about the NSA's surveillance programs. But the greater concern over commercial data collection didn't surprise O'Connor.

"People are interacting with the [commercial] online space every single day," she said. "It's probably front of mind the way government surveillance is not. Government surveillance is pretty opaque to the individual citizen."

While Internet users are seeing constant warnings of commercial data breaches, they should also be concerned about government data collection, she added. "Government over-collection of data is a far greater threat to your liberty," O'Connor said. "The ability of the government to deprive you of rights, or put you in jail, or make decisions about you that are life changing ... has far greater consequences than corporate data collection."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is

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Tags Nuala O'ConnorPew Research CentersecurityJules PolonetskyEdward SnowdenMary MaddenU.S. National Security AgencyCenter for Democracy and TechnologyinternetprivacyFuture of Privacy Forum

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