Americans Knew their Privacy Was Shot Even Before the NSA News

It's hard to believe that many of the purported revelations about National Security Agency domestic snooping of citizen communications came as a real shock to many Americans. According to the latest quarterly Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, most of us presumed government and other institutions were already mucking about with our stuff. The survey, which was done even before the NSA story broke, finds that 85% of Americans believe that their personal communications history (calls, emails, Web use) are accessible to the government and even to other businesses.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the findings reflects American’s general sense of powerlessness in the face of whatever real or imagined snooping is going on. 66% say they have little to no control over the data that is collected about them or from them. And most people do not believe that the data is being collected for good reason. 55% say the collection is negative insofar as it is used in a way that risks personal privacy, safety, financial security or even personal liberty.



The heart of the matter is a general skepticism toward institutions and their use of data overall. Most Americans feel that the information is being collected without their knowledge or control by a range of entities, from government to communications providers, insurance companies to financial institutions.

And they trust each of these institutions very differently. While healthcare companies' use of data is trusted by 80% of us and law enforcement by 71%, government generally is trusted by only 48%, political parties 37% and media 29%.

And yes, attitudes toward privacy and data cut clearly across generational lines. Those aged 39 and younger (48%) believe data collection has a generally positive impact, while 58% of those 40 and older see its net effect as negative.

Interestingly, the overwhelming majority, or about two-thirds, of us agree with the proposition that data sharing does help people access lower prices, get exposed to more interesting products and services and stay in closer contact with one another. They are less certain, however, that data collection actually results in any increase in their safety or security, let alone lowers rates on insurance or offers greater access to opportunities.   

Which is to say in the end that Americans are as divided on privacy and trust as they are on just about everything else. But wariness over institutions and their trustworthiness continues to drive our misgivings.

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