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Americans finally understand Big Tech’s Faustian bargain, but that doesn’t mean they’ll quit tech

Americans finally understand Big Tech’s Faustian bargain, but that doesn’t mean they’ll quit tech
[Photos: Tianyi Ma/Unsplash; Alexander Andrews/Unsplash]

America is no longer buying the internet advertising industry’s argument that personal data tracking helps us by showing us more relevant ads. That’s perhaps the biggest lesson from the results of a broad new Pew Research study, released today.

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The survey of 4,272 U.S. adults found that 6 in 10 people believe they can’t go through a day without having their personal data captured by some company or government agency.

Pew found that 72% of Americans believe that “all, almost all or most of” what they do online–either on their cellphone or their computer–is being tracked by advertisers, ad tech companies, data companies, or others. An additional 19% believe that “at least some of” what they do is being tracked.

If it’s true that Americans trade away their data privacy for convenience, a majority don’t feel they’re getting the best end of the deal. Pew finds that 81% feel that privacy risks of the systematic collection of their personal data by the likes of Google and Facebook outweigh the potential benefits. And exactly two-thirds say government collection of their personal data has more downside (in loss of privacy) than upside (in security).

Almost half of Americans–47%–believe that the government is tracking at least most of their online activities, mobile or otherwise. That’s a stunning stat, especially in light of the common belief that America is a better place to live than China, which systematically surveils its population.

A large majority of Americans–roughly 8 in 10–believe they have very little control over their personal data. Fully 81% say they have no control of what advertisers and ad tech companies collect from them, and 84% say they can’t control what they share with the government.

Seen together, all this helps explain the angst many people feel toward big tech companies and the paranoia some of us feel about government surveillance.

Companies like Facebook and Google, and the thousands of ad tech companies in the ecosystem, have built huge businesses on the harvesting of personal data in the background where consumers can’t clearly see. Only when strongly pressured have such companies been forthcoming about their data harvesting practices, choosing instead to trumpet the frontal benefits of “convenient” and “free” to consumers.

And yet the data (and Facebook and Google’s stock prices) suggest that while consumers feel they are being harmed more than helped by the data harvesting of Big Tech, they are unwilling or unable to stop using those services. That’s where it starts to sound a lot like addiction.

Not that it’s a simple issue. The services rendered by tech companies would, for many of us, be hard to live without. Facebook does connect grandmas with faraway grandkids. Google Docs is great for always having easy access to work. What’s missing is a plainspoken and honest explanation from the start of the terms of the bargain we strike with Big Tech–a clear explanation of the my-data-for-your-service quid pro quo.

“When it comes to privacy in the digital age, many Americans are concerned, confused and not fully convinced that the current systems of tracking and monitoring them bring more benefits than risk,” said Pew research director Lee Rainie in a statement with the survey results. “They fear their information is not as safe now as it used to be and they worry how data about them is being used. At the same time, some can conceive of circumstances where data use can be helpful, especially for achieving some broad societal benefits. As always, Americans’ views about privacy are complex and varied.”

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