It's been 15 years since Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy infamously quipped "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." You'd think we would have gotten the message by now, with all the news of online data breaches, revelations about broad government surveillance, and advertisers tracking your every move as you travel around the Web.
But we're not over it. We just don't know what to do about it.
That's the finding of a new Pew Research Center survey, which revealed that nearly all Americans surveyed feel they've lost control over how companies collect and use their personal information.
"It's a trade-off," said Bill Scully, 47, from Boston, while waiting for a train inside New York's Penn Station. When you sign up for Google Inc.'s Gmail, for example, you get free email in exchange for letting the company target ads to you, he said. "The same with Facebook. When you sign up for Facebook, you are basically signing up for a big marketing survey."
The survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet Project asked 607 U.S. adults about their privacy perceptions following Edward Snowden's exposure of government surveillance programs last year. The study found that most have "little confidence" in the security of communications tools ranging from social media sites to phones, and less than a quarter think that it is easy to be anonymous online.
Some 81 percent said they don't feel secure using social networking sites when they want to share private information. More than half of respondents are insecure emailing or texting private details, such as health issues. And 80 percent of those who use social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are concerned about advertisers and businesses accessing the information they share on the sites. Two-thirds of them think the government should do more to regulate those advertisers.
Asked if he feels that his information is secure online, Jeff Ji, from New Jersey, answered with an emphatic "no." He said he has had his credit card information breached, and is familiar with advertisers tracking his movements online. That said, he thinks that people have "no choice in the matter" if they want to use email or social media, even if it means sharing private information.
"Everyone uses it. It's a huge network and (we) need it to communicate with others," he said.
Since its 2004 launch, Facebook's user base has skyrocketed to more than 1.35 billion, despite ongoing user concerns about what happens to the vast trove of information that is shared on the site, albeit for free. Facebook uses people's likes, hometown, hobbies and movements around the Web to target ads to them, though it emphasizes that advertisers aren't privy to any information that could personally identify a user. Other free sites teeming with personal information include LinkedIn, where 300 million members have filled out pages with employment details and contacts. Users need to take steps to opt out of behavior tracking if they don't want to receive targeted ads.
Many people are OK with that — 55 percent of the survey's respondents said they are willing to share some personal information so they can use online services for free. "You're not paying for privacy," notes Priscilla Granger, 28, also from New Jersey. But nearly two-thirds of those polled don't think giving away all those personal details actually make websites and online services "more efficient." And the same number say they want to make a bigger effort to protect their privacy.
Pew plans to conduct four surveys on the topic over the course of a year. This report is based on the first survey, which was conducted Jan. 11-28 among a representative online panel of 607 adults. Although the panel was conducted online, Internet access was provided to respondents without it. The sampling error is 3.98 percent.