That’s according to a Pew Research Center survey published Monday on Americans’ privacy strategies post-Edward Snowden. Just over half of 475 respondents told Pew that they were very or somewhat concerned about surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications, while 46 percent were not very or not at all concerned.
Among those who were at least somewhat concerned, less than half said they had changed something about the way they communicate online and over the phone. Just over a third of the total respondents who were aware of the monitoring programs said that they had taken at least one step to shield their information from the government, such as changing privacy settings or uninstalling an app. When asked whether they had altered patterns of activity on technological platforms such as their use of e-mail, search engines and cellphones, that number dropped to 25 percent.
If so many people are concerned about surveillance in theory, why aren’t they doing more about it?
For one thing, respondents seemed less nervous about monitoring of their digital behavior than they are about the program at large. Though 57 percent of people who had heard about the NSA programs view surveillance of U.S. citizens as “unacceptable,” fewer than 40 percent were very or somewhat concerned about government surveillance of their own digital behavior. One respondent told Pew: “I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”
It’s also a question of knowledge and convenience. A majority of people believe it would be somewhat or very difficult to find tools and strategies that would protect their privacy online and on cellphones. When asked about specific tools such as e-mail encryption programs and privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins, between 70 and 80 percent had not adopted or didn’t even know about those options.
For the most part, taking steps to hide from government surveillance is still a niche activity. And as the steps become increasingly complex, fewer and fewer people are willing to try them. While 25 percent of respondents said they used more complex passwords and 19 percent changed their social media accounts’ privacy settings, only 2 percent had used anonymity software like Tor.
Interestingly, skepticism of data monitoring programs — or lack thereof — has almost no political bias. Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to change their behavior in response to the Snowden leaks, and they gave similar answers to questions about who it’s okay for the government to monitor. A large majority support surveillance of communications belonging to suspected terrorists and 60 percent agree with monitoring of American and foreign leaders, while most disagree with surveillance of U.S. citizens.
The only partisan difference came in response to a question about whether respondents had become more or less confident that monitoring programs are serving the public interest in recent months. Republicans were 15 percent more likely to say they are losing confidence — possibly a reflection of changing control of the White House. A 2013 Pew study found that nearly two-thirds of Democrats opposed a similar NSA monitoring program in 2006 during the Bush administration, but the same number supported NSA monitoring under President Obama. On the other hand, 75 percent of Republicans supported surveillance under President Bush — a number that fell to 52 percent in 2013 during Obama’s presidency.