Pew Research Survey on Privacy Perceptions

Pew Research has released a new survey on American's perceptions of privacy. The results are pretty much in line with all the other surveys on privacy I've read. As Cory Doctorow likes to say, we've reached "peak indifference to surveillance."

Posted on November 13, 2014 at 2:07 PM • 30 Comments


Bauke Jan DoumaNovember 13, 2014 3:00 PM

It's probably tired old me, but I don't understand why it's called 'Peak indifference'.

BoppingAroundNovember 13, 2014 5:08 PM

> However, the Pew study shows that Americans continue to worry about private and state surveillance, and that there's a great, unfulfilled market demand for privacy protection and services that respect privacy. It's a hopeful sign.

Not so much, I think. May I repost this link?

Bauke Jan Douma,

Perhaps because despite being 'concerned' and 'worried' people don't do much to help themselves with the situation; they don't even try?

MooseheadNovember 13, 2014 5:09 PM

My only comment on this survey is that it isn't as interesting or meaningful to know how people feel about an issue if you don't really know how much they are aware of the reality. They asked some vague questions about how much people are aware, but it doesn't really equate to knowing how clearly they understand the potential for harm. I always use the example that many young people today don't even know what McCarthyism was and many older people don't understand how powerful even seemingly harmless information can be in the hands of someone like McCarthy when they set about to do harm. If Hitler of Joe McCarthy had access to Facebook data for the past five years, I bet it would have a pretty dramatic impact on what they achieved.

Things like the sensitivity of your search history may seem not that serious, but it depends a lot on who is looking, why they are looking and for what you have been searching. You don't want every potential business contact or employer or anyone really knowing: (what kind of porn, gay or strait, any unpopular political preferences, communist, own a gun, buys sex toys, religious beliefs, visit prostitutes, have an STD, have cancer, pregnant, too old, believes in UFOs, curious about explosives)

With the right information you can deduce or at least lead yourself to believe you can deduce almost anything about someone.

bitstrongNovember 13, 2014 5:27 PM

Funny, one celebrity horrified by private photo storage intrusion, another willingly poses nude on cover of magazine.

bitstrongNovember 13, 2014 5:33 PM

What if everyone posted all their private info on the Internet, openly for anyone to see? There would be nothing to hack and steal.

The problem is, some people have a lot more to lose than others. Maybe so many seemingly indifferent people, in actuality, feel they don't have anything to lose.

AnuraNovember 13, 2014 6:14 PM


Funny, one celebrity horrified by private photo storage intrusion, another willingly poses nude on cover of magazine.

Yeah, what hypocrites, just like how women are hypocrites for complaining about being raped when other women are willing to have sex for money.


Corey CopelandNovember 13, 2014 7:33 PM

Good article by Cory. I'm glad I scrolled down to view the info on the evil-stick..Hope the kid is ok.

Chris AbbottNovember 13, 2014 7:35 PM


Different people feel differently about different things. The most important thing though, is whether it's your selfies, documents, or things that are way more important to secure than selfies, it should be the users choice whether it's released or not, not a cybercriminal or a TLA.

Chris AbbottNovember 13, 2014 7:38 PM

I think people are becoming nihilistic about privacy. Most people can't figure out how to use a lot of security software. Maybe more easy to use tools for security will change that.

Coyne TibbetsNovember 13, 2014 7:41 PM

@bitstrong: What if everyone posted all their private info on the Internet, openly for anyone to see? There would be nothing to hack and steal.

What if everyone left the doors to their homes unlocked so anyone could wander in any time? Then there would be nothing inside to break or steal, and everyone could come watch them have sex.

@bitstrong Funny, one celebrity horrified by private photo storage intrusion, another willingly poses nude on cover of magazine.

@bitstrong The problem is, some people have a lot more to lose than others. Maybe so many seemingly indifferent people, in actuality, feel they don't have anything to lose.

See the thing is, people are different.

If one actress chooses to expose her nude body to her fans to increase her popularity: Why does that require *every* actress to do so?

If one person chooses to publish all his medical records on the web: Why does that require *every* person to do so?

If one couple chooses to leave their house open and lets anyone come in and watch them having sex: Why does that require *every* couple to do so?

In your statements, I see an expression of an individuality-is-prohibited, everyone-must-be-an-interchangeable-cog totalitarianism. The individual isn't fit or competent to control themselves; *we* (royal we) control the individual, for their own good.

bitstrongNovember 13, 2014 8:14 PM

No, seriously. Immense wealth was destroyed and/or transferred the past six years in America. And I'm just questioning whether this affects the attitudes of many regarding individual privacy (and security). Do you think a person with an arrest record, no college degree, poor health, and a credit score of 550 could care less about their identity being stolen? Do you think a single mother who works 3 jobs to feed her kids could care less about the NSA? Just saying.

Nick PNovember 13, 2014 8:31 PM

@ bitstrong

I think a person with an arrest record would definitely care about mass surveillance or people committing crimes in their name. And the single mother might if she's an Arab-American and one of her jobs requires traveling via airplane.

But, yeah, there's a lot of people that don't care or keep it low on priorities. I've confirmed this in countless face to face conversations with the general public in areas with high diversity. Depressing, but true.

Chris AbbottNovember 13, 2014 9:39 PM

@Nick P

I couldn't agree with you more. Things like that make you more vulnerable, it makes you more concerned. I have some minor drug-related stuff on my record from my teenage, early college years (I don't care who knows) and it makes you feel like you're way more likely to have your life, your communications, ect. intruded upon. It makes you feel that way because it's true. People with those experiences feel like it's going to follow them forever. This is one of millions of reasons people need to be concerned about all of this. Traffic stops for speeding shouldn't take 15 minutes longer than everyone else that gets stopped because of non-violent drug crimes from decades ago. That veers slightly off-topic but if that's what happens at a traffic stop, what happens with your communications? Maybe nothing, maybe something. We don't know.

Sorry about the rant...

AnonymousseNovember 13, 2014 9:45 PM

@Bauke Jan Douma

It's probably tired old me, but I don't understand why it's called 'Peak indifference'.

It's like 'peak oil'. The supply of the thing being described has reached its maximum and can only decline. In this case, indifference is eroding.

Or at least we can hope.

Nick PNovember 13, 2014 10:16 PM

@ Chris Abbott

Don't apologize for a "rant:" that's the exact kind of honest response my post intended to evoke. Your response is shared to some degree with millions of Americans, maybe tens of millions. They aren't the majority but that's certainly a huge number. That people think like that (and should given current case law) is an important part of this subject. I worry even more given that I'm someone in high assurance security with precautions taken for domestic TLA/HSA attacks. That they label less qualified people an "adversary" in leaked NSA slides mean I have to wonder what evils await someone like me. Someone who does more than merely use or produce shoddy privacy tech.

And, yet, someone who does nothing to harm our nation. Even so, they think of me as an enemy of the state [intelligence apparatus] and I must be aware of that day to day. Even though I've never been arrested for or convicted of a crime. It's fucked up.

WinterNovember 14, 2014 1:21 AM

I think most people ignore the anonymous surveillance by state institutions and big businesses because they do not see how it affects them. It is like when you are walking in the forest. You know you are watches by the local wildlife at every step, but why would you care?

Things will explode when parents/spouses/children/teachers/employers/employees (select what is appropriate) get to see a person's on-line communications and behaviors. We already see this when it is suggested that the watchers should be watched. The world is supposed to collapse when we would be allowed to see what the TLAs/ISPs/Telecoms are doing.

It has been said many times before, privacy is not an absolute, black and white, thing, but layered. It is always the answer to "who will see this?" that is important.

Do I really care whether some guy in a nameless office in the states will know who ! really am when I post this? Not when my real name is just as meaningless as my pseudonymous handle to anyone in the US.

Personally, I know that this surveillance is chopping at the roots of democracy and that really worries me. But that is all very, very abstract.

Andrew_KNovember 14, 2014 2:42 AM

From my experience, there are some who would protest and who see what's going on -- but they just resign when realizing how big that thing is.
Turns out, everything that came up in the last 5 to 10 years is evil.

I can evade one evil device manufacturer. But I do not want to lose this enlightening technology at all.
I can evade one evil site on the net. But I do not want to give up using the Internet as easy-to-use platform for information and communication as a whole.
I can switch from one evil telco. But I do not want to live without a fast communication line to the world or even a telephone.

I could go on.

The situation is just as in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express".
The good guy is surrounded by bad guys.
Basic game theory: Best chances to preserve current lifestyle are resigning.

Peter A.November 14, 2014 3:38 AM


This is it. Either you resign or you're going to put most of your time and energy to protect yourself (assuming you're competent enough to know what to do) with little assurance and no indication of success - you'll only know you failed after the fact. You have to be alert and up-to-date all the time etc. There's a life to be lived! (Pardon me, Nick, Clive and others... I really admire your attitude.)

Damn, my stupid mail server is down for a month already and I can't find time to bring it back! I'm reading mail directly from the mail queue of the backup MX, after bumping max queue time. It's almost totally spam, anyway. Spam filter is down as well.

65535November 14, 2014 3:52 AM

I view privacy as important. As others have mention it is the “One-way Mirror” effect that is very alarming.

The people in the Intelligence Community [IC], the Military [Mil], Law Enforcement [LE], DoD contractors with Security Clearances [SC], Politicians with security teams/bodyguards, or generally people on the “inside” who have an huge advantage of looking at the Average Joe through a one-way mirror – but the Average Joe cannot see them.

That is particularly vexing to the Average Joe because some of those people on the “inside” have shields or government security apparatuses [including extremes powerful Business men] that make money and/or trample over the Average Joe’s privacy with impunity an cannot be held accountable. In essences those people are keeping themselves in power [and in private] by violating the privacy of others. It a cycle that continuously allows the powerful to become more powerful – the less powerful become even more so.

We have seen or even experienced the Dirty Cop, the Dirty Businessman, the Dirty Politician and now the Dirty Intelligence Officer. Worse these people have the ability to hire their friend to increase their power. It stinks - but it gets worse.

Take a look at the expanding number of “TSA” agents and their ability to vex the Average Joe while doing little or nothing for actual security. The TSA agent is entitled to look at “lists,” view private pictures/data, confiscate electronic devices and physically search the Average Joe – while making over-sized salaries and enjoying perks and protection – behind the one-way mirror.

We are less secure, less trusting, less productive, less economically positioned, and less happy with our overlords. This is a travesty! The one-way mirror has to be broken and I am grateful some on the inside have risked their lives to do so.

Andrew_KNovember 14, 2014 5:40 AM

@ 65535
I am not entirely sure whether it is just one big mirror. I would describe it more as a nested structure of mirrors. There are those in front line seperating average joe from your local LEO. But the local LEO is under surveillance, too, and there are databases not accessible to him. Atop of this food chain might be NSA (or some entity we do not know yet). I don't think the local LEO enjoys the protection as the Intelligence Officer or a contract worker does.

Of course, it may be one single big mirror. But that would be just a stupid implementation decision.

Some mirrors have been partially broken, but many of them seem intact and the repair team is probably already on its way.

vas pupNovember 14, 2014 9:23 AM

Important news on spying on your cell phone via planes in US:

The problem is when you have zero privacy (total outside collection & control of your personal life related information, you are subject to selective control and manipulation by those who know about your 'skeletons in the closet' regardless how old skeletons are, e.g. you want become active political figure in US, you should erase/fix your records up to
kindergarten. That is silly for me. You may like or don't like French folks, but they understood that many thing are relevant when Pope is elected, not top political figure/official. Morals are not mostly go together with professionalism and effectiveness. If I need heart surgery, I don't care about extramarital affairs of my surgeon. That is irrelevant for me. I want to see politicians on the top capable to provide policy towards better life for substantially more than 1% of population regardless of their moral issues outside criminal offences. But that is my own point.

BoppingAroundNovember 14, 2014 10:02 AM


You are right, that is worth considering.

Chris Abbott,

> Maybe more easy to use tools for security will change that.

I think it's more a matter of (hard) work than fancy tools. Speaking of computers and such, maybe it is justified to say that the majority of users are illiterate in the matter. Illiteracy can be battled with proper education, not (only) fancy tools.

Nick PNovember 14, 2014 10:41 AM

@ Peter A.

I guess people dodging strong INFOSEC so they can have a full life is a decent excuse. Better than many I've heard. ;)

CallMeLateForSupperNovember 14, 2014 11:35 AM

I stopped short in the second paragraph, stuck on the statistic that only about 2 in 5 (42%) adults say they heard "a lot" about gov. collecting private data. I would have guessed that that statistic was much larger. What the heck do people listen to and read that they don't hear about this stuff nearly every day? Only iTunes and ... comics?

AngelNovember 15, 2014 10:46 AM

I disagree that it is "peak indifference".

The fact is that people do not know why they should be concerned.

There is talk about dystopian futures, or talk about words which are largely meaningless to them, like "totalitarian", or "big brother is watching you". But, for someone who has studied totalitarian systems these phrases actually mean something. If you have not, these phrases are meaningless.

There is a myth that the US is very focused on freedom.

But they really do not know either what freedom is, nor what tyranny is. It is just meaningless words. They tell themselves they fight for these empty virtues, but this is not why they fight anymore then that they fought Iraq "because they had WMD" or "because they had terrorist ties". This is also why, now that it is well known all of this is a lie, there was no outrage, and no change.

It is the illusion and ignorance of the self-righteous. They do not understand how bad they are, they believe they are right. "Right". They are hungry, so they are right to eat. They are thirsty, so they are right to drink. They are horny, so they are right to rape. They crave praise, so they are right to try and earn it. They are angry, so they are right to murder, to defame, to steal, to hurt. Sadism gives them pleasure, so they are right to walk in it.

Lies give them benefit, so they are right to believe in them and say them.

AngelNovember 15, 2014 11:39 AM

@'Why Should Anyone Care'

I see a few others have also noted that people don't have much of a reason to care.

There are people outside the US who do not care, and people inside the US who do not care.

The natural order of things means that nations will fight against each other to try and preserve their way of life. If you notice from social forums, where people can be abusive, they are abusive. If you notice from video games, when people can cheat, they do.

If you can steal a nation's defense secrets, and undermine their defense strategies, you can compromise their businesses and build up your own businesses, or steal - in many different ways - their assets.

People generally are very short sighted. Issues like oil running out or mass manufacturing income being lost to 3d printers does not mean so much to them ahead of time, even if they see it may involve their children living impoverished.

They do tend to have some sense of protectiveness, however. So, if they see they can steal now, they work at doing this. If they can get into foreign and local businesses and take control of their resources, they do this. This protective strategy wins in the long term, because by the time the noose starts tightening everyone else is very ill prepared.

They had been trusting by bribery, implied threats, and the lie of whispered safety. This is how animals hunt, stalk, and kill. This is how the snake moves onto the prey. They allow the snake to wrap around them, until it is too late.

One can then argue the US should be the future capital nation of the world, because the rest of the world let them do this. As today cities are segregated tightly by income and various physical anomalies, so tomorrow might the world be: the wealthy in the US, the capital of the world, and the impoverished every where else.

kpjmNovember 16, 2014 11:46 PM

In reality, it's probably more like a series of mirrors, one behind another, some are convoluted, some may converage on a tangent, guess that's where the word prism came from. Even those on the inside are layered, and skewered, cross-watched, or even tripple surveillance. So much, or little, of technical capabilities has Snowden discussed, but we haven't heard anything about the military intelligence aspect of it all. You spy on so many people, you eventually become paranoid of your own shadows.

vas pupNovember 20, 2014 10:06 AM

New technology could be utilized for security as well (e.g. post-interrogation analysis of video to find out emotional reaction to particular questions, but not for Court - just for criminal Intel):

“One such tool is a program which automatically detects people appearing in a video feed and measures their pulse using image analysis. "The idea is to be able to do contactless triage," says Paul Brodersen, a researcher in systems biology, who showed off the system.
The technique is called Eulerian video magnification and it works even with a basic webcam. Brodersen's software – based on freely available code developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Quanta Research in Boston – works by amplifying the red tones in a person's face. The subtle variation in redness over time gives away the pulsing of blood beneath the skin”.

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