Californians are sold on personal digital technologies and online services, but wary of the motives of the companies that offer them.
According to a statewide survey, 82% of Californians are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about internet and smartphone companies collecting their personal information. But that doesn’t stop them from using the products and services. About 87% of Californians have a computer in their home for personal use, and 46% carry a smartphone.
The poll, conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, found that 78% of California’s digital citizens consider the collection of online personal information an invasion of privacy. That compares to 13% who see it as a benign way for companies to improve online services.
“Overwhelmingly Californians did not like the idea of their personal information being used for commercial purposes and they weren’t shy in telling us about that,” said Dan Schnur, the study lead and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California. “They are resentful — almost angry — because they feel that their personal information isn’t being handled with the appropriate deference and care.”
The concerns cut across political boundaries. 79% of Democrats, 79% of Republicans and 74% of independents said collection of their personal information online is an invasion of privacy, with roughly equal percentages — 64% of Democrats, 66% of Republicans and 62% of independents — saying they believe that “strongly.”
By education level, 79% of non-college educated citizens and 77% of college-educated citizens said technology companies are violating their privacy by collecting personal information. By region, 72% of residents of the Bay Area of California said collection of information online is an invasion of privacy, and 18% said it allowed for personalized web browsing. In LA County, the split is 77-14; in the Central Valley it is 79-11.
Overall, 25% of Californians said they were most concerned about the collection of personal information happening without their knowledge. 21% were most concerned about personal information becoming public. 12% were concerned about their personal information being sold. 6% were concerned about internet companies making money from their personal information. 32% said all of these possibilities concerned them.
Respondents were asked to rate six tech giants on trustworthiness with regards to handling personal data. On a 10-point scale, with zero meaning no trust and 10 meaning complete trust, Apple got a sub-par score of 4.6, followed by Google at 3.8. LinkedIn at 3.0 and YouTube at 2.8. Facebook and Twitter dragged in at a dismal 2.7 and 2.4, respectively.
“I thought the ratings were strikingly low,” said Linda DiVall, the president and founder of American Viewpoint, one of the polling firms that conducted the survey. “If I were involved with the branding image of those companies, I would be very concerned.”
The poll was conducted by telephone March 14-19 with 1,500 registered California voters. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Nearly 3 in 4 Americans use search engines, and two-thirds use social networks. Almost half of adults in the U.S. own smartphones. We find these devices and services useful and, in many cases, essential. And yet, they scare us. Why?
Legislators are busy trying to pass laws aimed at protecting personal information. Internet privacy hearings are almost a daily occurrence on Capitol Hill. The Obama administration has called on Congress to pass online privacy legislation. Why?
Why is privacy such a big deal? What difference does it make if Facebook knows what you “Like”?
Why are we so uneasy about goods and services that most of us consider beneficial?
At least part of the answer is that we instinctively distrust any group or organization that is big, impersonal and powerful. We are naturally wary of the little man behind the curtain, the puppeteer pulling the strings, the entity that can see us, but can’t be seen by us.
It’s not that we don’t want others to know what we like, where we go or what we hope for. It’s that we are afraid of what others might do with that information. We are afraid that if someone knows our behaviors and tastes they can control our behaviors and tastes. We are afraid that knowing what we do and watching where we go will turn into telling us what to do and controlling where we go.
It has been that way throughout history, with generals, emperors, kings, popes, boards of directors and central committees. It happens on a national and local scale. The basic resistance to having someone know so much about you that they can control your behavior goes back to the relationship between the authoritative parent and dependent child.
And just as it is in a family, the best way to alleviate the fear and remove concern is to know who you are dealing with, what their motives are and what exactly they know, or would like to know, about you. A transparent government or company with a human face, like a transparent parent, is far less worrisome than an anonymous and secretive one.
We don’t distrust Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and others because of what they have done to us. How many people have they harmed by data collection? We distrust them because we can’t see what they are doing with the data. We don’t know what they are up to. We don’t know what they have on us. We also distrust them because they have no legal obligation or financial motivation to tell us.
Conversely, they fear us. They fear what will happen if we know what they know. They are afraid that if we can see their machinations we will rebel, legalistically and legislatively.
They fear a data privacy insurrection. And that is exactly what they’ll get if they don’t become transparent and human.
Being digitally literate does not mean simply worrying about our data. It means being proactive in our efforts to know what is known about us and who knows it. The tech companies whose products we love cannot be counted on to change their behaviors without a little nudge from a consuming public equipped with literacy 2.0 skills and attributes.
In the digital world, the way to keep from being controlled is not to try to control the controllers, it is to use the power of our behaviors and awareness to influence the would-be controllers — to motivate them to pull back the curtain, cut the strings and step into the light.