New Surveys on Privacy, Trust Portend Future Crisis

Americans' concerns over privacy increased after whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents in 2013 about widespread government surveillance by the top-secret National Security Agency. Two new surveys reveal that those anxieties have deepened alarmingly and they apply to Americans' views of business and technology as well as government.

The upshot: Fears about privacy and its future have reached crisis din, with many Americans resigned to the death of privacy and less optimism about their future.

The two surveys, both released earlier this month (January) center on privacy and trust - two intertwined elements. The one on privacy was issued by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts that doesn't take policy positions. It has mapped Americans' nuanced feelings about privacy and surveillance for the past two years.

The other that relates to the public's trust of institutions, including government and business, came from the respected Edelman Global Trust Barometer, an annual study by the communications marketing firm. Its latest survey finds that more than half of surveyed Americans continue to distrust business and the government. Only 45 percent are optimistic that they will fare better in five years.

Trust levels link to the depth of Americans' privacy worries. Besides the Edelman survey, the Pew study finds that Americans hold low levels of trust in the government and the business sector. They specifically associate that with data collection and monitoring. They have exceedingly low levels of confidence in the privacy and security of the records maintained in this digital age.

Noteworthy numbers of them, especially younger adults, say they've suffered privacy breaches. To Americans, privacy is important in their daily lives in a number of essential ways, the Pew survey reveals. They don't want to feel they're under surveillance all the time, and they want to share ideas and secrets with others in a way that's unobserved. Yet, they have a pervasive sense they are under constant surveillance when in public. Plus, very few feel they have a great deal of control over the data that's collected about them and how it's used. In brief, they view the trend toward surveillance and the capturing of data as inexorable.

A Troubling Crisis Landscape

This all fosters a crisis environment that we all should find troubling. Indeed, most members of focus groups that Pew researchers established to discuss privacy were downbeat about the future of privacy. Indeed, speaking for many of the older focus group members, one asserted: "The next generation will say, privacy?... What is that? Another added: "The next generation will not even understand the value of privacy."

Privacy will be a thing of the past. That's scary. Americans have always thought Communism - think Russia, China and North Korea - spelled the lack of individual privacy. Surveillance there conjures up images of gulags and worse. Democracy, on the other hand, has long defined liberty - as well as the freedom of thought and speech and the ability to engage in political activity.

Certainly, our form of government is supposed to ensure freedom against government and business abuses of privacy. Our personal data in the wrong hands can cause and does spark great harm. It damages that trust that is crucial in our relationships, both personal and professional.

Very simply, the loss of privacy impoverishes our culture. It threatens our inventiveness and our ability to fight tyranny, regardless of the institution generating it. Indeed, artistic and scientific innovations occur to a great extent in privacy. Privacy is a limit on power from both government and private sector companies. It defines our respect for others, and it helps us manage our reputations - and that makes possible opportunities, relationships and our future happiness.

Privacy vs. Values

At times the desire for privacy conflicts with important values. The terrorism threat has underscored that. Still, privacy should be considered so critical that even in those instances, a civilized dialogue should occur that addresses the issue from all sides. One increasing worry was expressed by a Pew focus group member, who noted, "I think privacy will be stripped away because people are permitting it - one trade at a time. The cameras for security evolve into cameras to ensure compliance. And once those are in, the next thing is easier to get in.

Privacy is a complicated landscape indeed. It gets more complicated with technological advances. An auto insurer contends that a tracking device on your car to monitor your driving habits might lead to lower insurance payments. The mobile phone app that lets you find the closest restaurant or retailer you're looking for requires that it knows your location at all time.

They seem like positive developments - but, given the growing distrust of government and business when it comes to privacy, who knows. As another focus group member contended. The law is way behind technology. Privacy was written for a pre-digital world. Don't expect any privacy in the future.

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. -- David Brin