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Americans to Companies: We Don’t Trust You With Our Personal Data

November 15, 2019, 5:00 PM UTC

Most Americans don’t trust companies with their personal data and feel they have little control over what’s collected about them and how it’s used, according to a new survey.

Nearly 80% of U.S. adults are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about how companies use their personal digital data, the Pew Research Center said on Friday, proving a suspicion that already existed. Additionally, 81% of adults feel they have little or no control over the data companies collect.

“Its’ clear that Americans have a high level of concern about this environment,” said Lee Rainie, the Internet and technology research director at Pew who co-authored the report. “Classically, American concern is, ‘I want to be in control, I want to be left alone if I chose.’ Americans don’t feel that that’s the state of play now.”

The survey comes amid a growing number of data scandals and breaches caused by companies that have been careless with security and privacy. Big retailers and consumer services including Target and Equifax have had massive breaches that revealed sensitive information about millions of customers.

At the same time, tech companies like Facebook and Google have come under fire for collecting extensive amounts of data, sharing that data with others without users’ knowledge, and creating profiles about people to better target them with ads.

The Pew survey, based on responses from 4,272 U.S. adults between June 3 and June 17, found that most Americans doubt that companies will publicly admit to and take responsibility for mismanaging their data. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they have little to no confidence that businesses will do the right thing. 

And even though many continue to exchange their data for services and products, 81% of people feel the risks now outweigh the benefits of the exchange. 

The sentiments appear have intensified over time, as 70% of those surveyed said they feel that their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago. 

“The level of collection, of profiling, the way [people] are being evaluated and scored has gotten more elaborate and confusing,” Rainie said. “The terms of engagement have substantially changed.”

The survey found that 83% of respondents frequently or occasionally see ads that appear to based on profiles companies created using their personal data. And of that group, 61% say that the ads are somewhat or very good at accurately reflecting their interests.

But that doesn’t mean that people actually want companies using their data this way. More than eight in 10 people are concerned about the information social media companies and advertisers know about them. 

And they don’t find privacy policies easy to understand, even though they’re regularly asked to agree to them. 

More than 80% of people say they are asked monthly to agree to a privacy policy, with 33% of people saying it happens almost every week. But a vast majority only glance at or partially read the policies, and when they do, more than 85% of them understand only some of the policy, if any of it at all.

In the end, only 8% of adults feel as though they understand a “great deal” about these policies while 53% say they understand some to none of it.

“Americans admit they’re not very vigilant,” Rainie said. Meanwhile, “companies can say, ‘We’re following the way this system is set up. This is what the law tells us to do.’ So it’s a very complicated story where every side has issues.”

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