Less than Half of Americans Trust Federal Government with Personal Info

Majority see social networking sites, government agencies and their fellow Americans - in possession of camera-equipped devices - as threats to their privacy

Jul 16, 2013, 05:00 ET from Harris Interactive

NEW YORK, July 16, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- With revelations of government spying coming one after another in recent weeks, it's perhaps no surprise that just under half of American adults (48%) trust the federal government to handle personal information privately and securely, down from 54% in 2009. Trust in the federal government is highest among those ages 18-34 years old, and lowest among those 55 and older (58% ages 18-34 and 39% ages 55+).

(Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20100517/NY06256LOGO)

This puts the federal government well behind health providers (79%, up from 74% in 2009), major online retailers (74%, not asked in 2009) and banks/brokerage companies (68%, up from 59% in 2009), slightly behind small and/or independent online retailers (55%, also not asked in 2009) and on par with state and local governments (52%, down from 56% in 2009) and search and portal sites (49%, even with 2009 results), in terms of American's trust in their handling of personal information in a properly confidential and secure manner. Social networking sites are well behind the federal government, at 28% - though this does represent some growth in trust from 23% in 2009.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,091 adults surveyed online between June 28 and July 2, 2013 by Harris Interactive. (Full findings, including data tables and perceptions of other potential privacy threats, available here)

Privacy at risk from cyber-criminals, social media, government snoops and… your fellow Americans?

It is perhaps not surprising that the vast majority of Americans – nearly nine in ten (88%) – see cyber-criminals as a threat to their privacy, making this group the top threat among all those tested. Social networking sites are the next strongest perceived threat, with seven in ten (70%) perceiving such sites as threats to their privacy.

What may be more surprising is that the majority of Americans also feel their privacy is threatened by both government agencies (60% federal, 56% state/local) and camera-equipped devices in the hands of their fellow Americans (63% wearable tech devices, 59% phones).

When asked specifically which represents the greatest threat to their privacy – the federal government, cyber-criminals or their fellow Americans (with access to camera-equipped devices) – nearly two-thirds of Americans specify cyber-criminals (64%), with women more likely to select this group than men (69% vs. 58%).

Nearly three in ten (28%) point to the federal government as the greatest threat to their privacy, with men over 50% more likely than women to do so (35% vs. 22%), and a small but notable percentage of Americans – nearly one in ten (8%) – perceive their fellow Americans with access to camera-equipped devices (such as phones or wearable technology) as the greatest threat to their privacy, a sentiment that is roughly twice as pronounced among 18-34 year olds (12%) as it is among any other age group (6% ages 35-44, 6% ages 45-54, 7% ages 55+).

"Even within the context of recent reports exposing widespread and previously secret government surveillance programs, we were astonished to see that nearly three in ten Americans perceive the federal government as a greater threat to their privacy than cyber-criminals," shares Harris Poll President Mike de Vere. "But of course, it's vital to remember that privacy doesn't exist in a vacuum; rather, it exists as part of a shaky and constantly shifting balance between the privacy Americans value and the security they demand.  This balance is surely something the administration is grappling with now, as will future administrations in years to come."

Wearable tech future and fears

Is wearable technology the wave of the future, or do only early adopters need apply? After reading a description about Google's upcoming Google Glass product, six in ten Americans (61%) think devices like this will take some getting used to but will eventually become more mainstream, much like cell phones, while one-third (33%) don't think there will be much interest in devices like this.

But regardless of how Americans feel about whether such devices will find a market, many have concerns about the dangers they could represent.  Eight in ten Americans (79%) worry that devices like this are dangerous, in that they will cause hazardous driver and pedestrian distractions, with this fear resonating most strongly among women (85%, vs. 73% among men).

Perhaps reflecting privacy concerns, given such devices' ability to surreptitiously capture and share photos, video and audio files, two-thirds of Americans (67%) would be uncomfortable with anyone having such a device in their vicinity, while only half (51%) would be comfortable with even someone they know well and trust doing so. Women are especially sensitive on this topic, showing a higher level of discomfort with anyone having such a device in their vicinity (71%, vs. 62% among men) and a lower level of comfort with someone they know well and trust doing so (46%, vs. 56% among men).

Mixed attitudes toward corporate America on privacy

Americans appear conflicted in how they see corporate America. While three-fourths (75%) agree that consumers have lost all control over how personal information is collected and used by companies, nearly two-thirds (64%) agree that most businesses handle the personal information they collect about consumers in a proper and confidential way. Only half (49%) believe that existing laws and organizational practices provide a reasonable level of protection for consumer privacy today.

Customized content creeps out consumers

Looking specifically at online data collection practices, a majority of Americans (56%, representing only a slight improvement from 59% in 2008) are not comfortable with the practice of websites using information about a person's online activity to customize website content. A generational divide of sorts appears to be at work though, with those under 45 (43% ages 18-34, 48% ages 35-44) considerably less likely to express discomfort with this than those 45 and older (63% ages 45-54, 66% ages 55+).

To see other recent Harris Polls, please visit the Harris Poll News Room.


This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between June 28 and July 2, 2013 among 2,091 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

The Harris Poll® #45, July 16, 2013

By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager

About Harris Interactive

Harris Interactive, Inc. (NASDAQ: HPOL) is one of the world's leading market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll® and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers proprietary solutions in the areas of market and customer insight, corporate brand and reputation strategy, and marketing, advertising, public relations and communications research. Harris possesses expertise in a wide range of industries including health care, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Additionally, Harris has a portfolio of multi-client offerings that complement our custom solutions while maximizing our client's research investment. Serving clients in more than 196 countries and territories through our North American and European offices, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us - and our clients—stay ahead of what's next. For more information, please visit www.harrisinteractive.com.

Press Contact: Corporate Communications Harris Interactive 212-539-9600 press@harrisinteractive.com


SOURCE Harris Interactive