Five years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg predicted that as people became more and more dependent on social media and online communications, they would have fewer and fewer concerns about personal privacy.
“I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before,” Zuckerberg said in 2008.
A recent poll by Gallup seems to suggest Zuckerberg was right, though at least one privacy expert questions the findings of the survey conducted last month, in the midst of growing revelations about the broad reach of National Security Agency surveillance.
Gallup found that only 35 percent of Internet users are “very concerned” about the government’s ability to monitor their Internet activities, compared with 47 percent in 2000 — a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The findings are surprising in the wake of the NSA spying scandal, and are particularly notable given that a separate Gallup Poll last month showed that Americans are engaged in a love fest with the Internet, with even senior citizens going online in unprecedented numbers. The poll found that 87 percent of Americans personally use the Internet — up from 69 percent in 2002 — and the number of users age 65 and older jumped 32 percentage points over the past 11 years.
So how much does wired America really care about government snooping?
“There’s more understanding now of how the technology works and what you’re getting from it,” argued Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents the biggest Internet companies. “People are using it in a different way and are more comfortable with it in their lives.”
Of course, that’s true of virtually every serious technological advance dating back to the wheel. But Beckerman said the trend folds into a larger story about shifting attitudes on national security, pointing to changes post-9/11 that are now routine but at one time were unconscionable, like full-body searches at the airport.
Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is lobbying for surveillance reform, said he thinks the Internet’s pervasiveness has only increased privacy concerns.
“People will always want and have a need for private space,” Jaycox said. “Just because the Internet facilitates public outflow of information doesn’t mean there’s a corollary that people aren’t worried about their online privacy.”
Jaycox questioned Gallup’s polling data, and pointed to other polls showing most Americans oppose the NSA’s sweeping data-collection programs.
But opposing a specific program and acquiescing to the new realities of a digital age are not one and the same. In fact, several polls indicate that a “notable minority” of Americans believe the government is doing more to violate their digital privacy than it really is — at least more than what has been divulged so far — and are still tolerant in general of surveillance, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. It’s the “I suspect the worst, and I’m still OK with it” caucus, he added.
“Resignation doesn’t show up very much” in polling data, Rainie said. “But there are definitely signs that people are thinking about tradeoffs.”
The polls by Gallup were both conducted Oct. 3-6 and both have margins of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The poll on privacy concerns surveyed 887 Internet users and the poll on Internet usage was conducted among 1,028 adults.