Edward Snowden has been heard, and his words are having at least some effect.
A Pew Research Center survey has found that nearly one third of American adults have taken steps to protect their information from government surveillance programs that monitor phone and digital communications.
Most – 87% – of Americans have heard about the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) surveillance programs since Snowden began leaking documents nearly two years ago.
More than one fifth – 22% – say that they’ve since changed their use of various technology tools “a great deal” or “somewhat”.
Between late November and early January, The Pew Center surveyed 475 adult members of the GfK Knowledge Panel: a consumer research company. It also surveyed 59 panelists who participated in one of six online focus groups conducted during December 2014 and January 2015.
57% reported that they consider surveillance of US citizens to be unacceptable, while 54% think it’s justifiable when those being monitored are either politicians or from other countries.
How people have changed their behaviour
Out of those surveyed who are at least somewhat aware of the NSA’s surveillance programs (30% of adults), 34% have taken at least one step to keep their information hidden or shielded from the government.
Specifically, here’s what they’re doing:
- 25% are using more complex passwords
- 17% changed their privacy settings on social media
- 15% use social media less often
- 15% have avoided certain apps
- 13% have uninstalled apps
- 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone
- 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications
Another 25% of those aware of the surveillance programs (22% of surveyed adults) have changed how they interact with communication technology “a great deal” or “somewhat”.
- 18% say they’ve changed the way they use email
- 17% have changed the way they use search engines
- 15% say they have changed the way they use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook
- 15% have changed the way they use their cell phones
The privacy tools people are not using, and why
The Pew Center suggests that those who haven’t changed their behaviours might be intimidated by it being “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find tools and strategies that would help them be more private online and when using their mobile phones.
These are some of the commonly available tools that they reportedly aren’t using:
- 53% haven’t adopted or considered using a search engine that doesn’t keep track of a user’s search history and another 13% don’t know about these tools.
- 46% haven’t adopted or considered using email encryption programs and another 31% don’t know about such programs.
- 43% haven’t adopted or considered adding privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger and another 31% don’t know about such plug-ins.
- 41% haven’t adopted or considered using proxy servers that can help them avoid surveillance and another 33% don’t know about them.
- 40% haven’t adopted or considered using anonymity software such as Tor and another 39% don’t know what it is.
Those numbers are probably on the optimistic side, the Pew Center said, given that “noteworthy” numbers of respondents answered “not applicable to me” on related questions – in spite of virtually all of them being internet and cell phone users.
The more people say they know about surveillance, the more likely that they’ve changed their behaviours: out of those who say they’ve heard a lot, 38% say they’ve changed a great deal/somewhat in at least one activity, and out of those who are at least somewhat concerned about the programs, 41% have changed at least one activity.
Specific concerns include government monitoring of social media, search engines, cell phones, apps, and email.
When it comes to the question of whether the courts are doing a good job of balancing the needs of law enforcement and intelligence agencies with citizens’ right to privacy, there’s a pretty even divide: 48% say courts and judges are balancing those interests, while 49% say they aren’t.
Not that Americans are adverse to all surveillance, mind you. Generally, the public approves of monitoring plenty of people, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:
- 82% say it’s acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists
- 60% believe it’s acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.
- 60% think it’s OK to monitor the communications of foreign leaders
- 54% say it’s acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens
So, monitoring foreigners and politicians is OK, but not US citizens: 57% say that the monitoring of citizens’ communications is unacceptable.
But then again, lots of people – 65% – think it’s OK to monitor people who pepper their communications with words such as “explosives” and “automatic weapons” in search engine queries, and 67% think it’s OK to monitor people who visit anti-American websites.
Americans are split about just how much we should worry about surveillance – particularly when it comes to their own digital behaviour.
Overall, 52% say they’re “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications, compared with 46% who say they’re “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned” about surveillance.
When asked about monitoring of their own communications and online activities, the concern levels slipped:
- 39% describe themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on search engines.
- 38% say they’re “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on their email messages.
- 37% express concern about government monitoring of their activity on their cell phone.
- 31% are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.
- 29% say they’re concerned about government monitoring of their activity on their mobile apps.
How about you? How has the readership of an infosec blog like Naked Security changed its behaviours?
Feel free to share in the comments section below. We will be surveilling your commentary input, as always!