- Technology platforms like Google and Facebook are raking in record revenues from helping advertisers use personal information to target ads, as the industry continues to grow.
- At the same time, an overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned about companies harvesting their personal information and say the risks outweigh the benefits, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.
- The survey found that people feel paralyzed by a lack of understanding about how companies use their data and an inability to do anything about it.
- The complexity of data privacy issues has prevented both companies and the government from finding one-size-fits-all solutions.
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As people’s personal information becomes increasingly valuable, an overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned about what companies like Facebook or Google are doing with that data.
According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, 79% of Americans are either somewhat or very concerned about how companies use the data they collect. At the same time, 81% don’t even feel like they have control over what data is collected.
“People think that surveillance is a part of everyday life, that you can’t be anonymous in most cases,” Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew, told Business Insider.
When it comes to their data, most Americans are “concerned about it, they’re confused about it, they don’t feel like they have control over it,” Rainie said.
Companies have frequently tried to sell users on the benefits of sharing their data, arguing that doing so will improve their “experience” with a product or service.
For example, by harvesting millions of users’ data, Google aims to offer more accurate directions and commute times via its Google Maps app. Facebook, on the other hand, hopes to curate more relevant content in users’ News Feeds using the data it collects.
But giving companies access to sensitive data comes with tradeoffs. Companies like Google and Facebook generate most of their revenues not from developing better products, but from aggregating lots of users’ information and then brokering access of it to advertisers or other third-party partners. That’s led to various privacy concerns around issues like highly targeted ads and an endless firehose of data breaches.
Pew’s survey found that Americans don’t think those tradeoffs are worth it: 81% said the potential risks of companies collecting their data outweigh the benefits.
“The total picture here is one of distress and, you know, a lot of distrust,” Rainie said.
Most Americans lacked confidence that companies would tell them about misuses of their data or even use it appropriately in the first place, according to the survey.
Privacy versus profits
While consumers may not be buying companies’ sales pitches about the perks of sharing data, advertisers certainly are — and they’re paying big bucks for it.
Market research firm eMarketer (which is owned by Business Insider parent company Axel Springer) estimated that digital ads revenue brought in more than $108 billion last year in the US alone, up more than 23% from the previous year. Google and Facebook alone brought in more than 60% of that revenue.
Nicole Perrin, an eMarketer analyst, told Business Insider that the estimates reflected “a continued eagerness among advertisers to do audience targeting at scale within walled gardens.” Those “walled gardens” include platforms like Facebook that leverage users’ data to give advertisers powerful ways to target them.
Tide slowly beginning to change
The mood around data privacy and targeted ads may be starting to shift, however.
Earlier this year, Apple integrated technology into its web browser, Safari, that prevents ads from tracking users across the web. Perrin said that’s significant because “almost half of the smartphone population here in the US has an iPhone and this is affecting them.”
“I definitely think there’s pressure for legislative approaches,” Perrin said.
According to Pew’s survey, 75% of Americans agree, saying that there should be more government regulation of what companies can do with their data.
That may be easier said than done, however, given how many different ways data is collected, shared, and used by both companies and governments. But given people’s interest in reclaiming their digital privacy, Rainie said Pew hopes to ask specifically about possible legislative solutions in future surveys.