Survey: Americans Still Not Sure Where To Set Limits In Their On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With The Government
from the possibly-considering-putting-our-collective-foot-down dept
The good news is Americans are concerned about data privacy. Some Americans always have been but it looks like more people are concerned than usual, which could be a good thing. I’m not sure it will be. As is often the case here in America, our views on privacy — especially when combined with our views on law enforcement — are, at best, conflicted.
That’s what comes through in this Pew Research survey [PDF] on data privacy. As J.D. Tucille notes in his coverage of this report for Reason, some of this new concern about data access by the government is tied to the current political climate.
“Americans – particularly Republicans – have grown more concerned about how the government uses their data,” Pew Research noted on October 18 of a survey of 5,101 participants. “The share who say they are worried about government use of people’s data has increased from 64% in 2019 to 71% today.”
That jump in stated distrust tracks with Donald Trump’s tumultuous exit from office. While under Trump, the DOJ spent plenty of time subjecting journalists to measures that undermined their privacy, as well as the security of their sources. Now that there’s a Democrat heading the country, Republicans are suddenly much more concerned about the government and its access to their data.
And they’re not wrong, even if the concern seems opportunistic. The government has plenty of access to personal data thanks to data brokers who are not only willing to hoover up any data laying around, but also sell it to government agencies. Government agencies are more than happy to do this because they feel it means they can shove the Fourth Amendment aside until the nation’s top court decides to fold this data in under its Carpenter decision.
There’s also been a spike in distrust for the private sector, which certainly hoovers more than its fair share of user data.
Americans are actually more concerned (81 percent) about how private companies use their data. But the big jump in worry over government abuse of sensitive information is remarkable and may explain why “71% have little to no trust that these tech leaders will be held accountable by the government for data missteps.”
Some of this distrust of tech companies has been driven by political forces. The former president’s dislike of any service that dared to moderate content created by he or his acolytes has seen tech companies routinely criticized and questioned by Congressional Republicans. Again, they aren’t necessarily wrong to raise questions about data handling and content moderation. But they never seemed all that concerned about these companies until it became politically expedient to do so.
Americans in general are just like their reps. They’re just as susceptible to shifting narratives and convenient outrage.
And they’re just as likely to be inconsistent. On one hand, a majority of people surveyed (especially Republicans) say they’re worried about government access to their data. On the other hand, a smaller majority feels it’s probably ok to give the government access to stuff it normally can’t access without warrants or consent.
Some of Pew’s findings align with what we already know about how certain groups view the government:
Roughly half of Hispanic, Black or Asian adults are very worried about people stealing their identity or personal information, compared with a third of White adults.
About one-in-five of each group are very worried about law enforcement monitoring their online activity; 10% of White adults say this.
And while 7 out of 10 people say they’re concerned about the government’s access to their data, a larger percentage feels fine with allowing law enforcement to track them via their cell phones or utilize their personal property to engage in criminal investigations.
Roughly three-quarters of Americans say it’s very or somewhat acceptable for law enforcement to obtain footage from cameras people install at their residences during a criminal investigation or use information from cellphone towers to track where someone is.
By comparison, smaller shares – though still a slight majority – say it is acceptable to break the passcode on a user’s phone (54%) or require third parties to turn over users’ private chats, messages or calls (55%) during a criminal investigation.
The questionnaire says nothing about obtaining a warrant and it’s notable that this percentage is only a few points less than the responses to the same question that added “when public safety is at risk.” Law enforcement can obtain these things with a warrant, which is how that’s supposed to work. These responses suggest an alarming number of Americans believe cops have a right to this information that supersedes any warrant requirement.
These responses also show generational/racial splits. 88% of people 65 or older think the stuff listed above is acceptable. Only 57% of those ages 18 to 29 felt the same way. And, as usual, whites feel far more comfortable giving cops more stuff more often.
White adults are more likely than Hispanic and Black adults to think it’s acceptable for law enforcement to use information from cellphone towers to track people’s locations and to break the passcode on a user’s phone to get access to its contents.
White and Hispanic adults are more likely than Black adults to say it’s acceptable to require third parties to turn over users’ private chats, messages or calls.
This is the weird (and weirdly permanent) state of American citizens’ relationship with law enforcement. On one hand, a majority of people feel the government can’t be trusted with their data. On the other hand, a majority of citizens feel the government should have more access than it already has. Real land of contrasts stuff.
And it’s this sort of thing that makes it impossible to mount cohesive reform efforts targeting police departments or government access to personal data. Whatever isn’t being skewed by hyper-partisan politics is hindered by the public’s inability to firmly reject the government’s constant advances — something that has gotten considerably worse since it spent most of September 2001 constantly drunk dialing reps and and a grieving public, asking for another chance to do whatever it wanted without suffering the consequences of being shunned completely.