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Issue date: July 2, 2000

In this article:
Results of our poll on privacy
How to protect your privacy


An Intimate invasion
Americans feel cornered by mounting threats to privacy -- online, at work, in their homes. The surprising results of USA WEEKEND's poll offer new insights into our complex attitudes about who's to blame and what must be done.

by Jedediah Purdy

TECHNOLOGY is changing the horizons of personal privacy so fast that we suddenly face problems nearly unimaginable only five years ago. But the technological revolution only sharpens a longstanding American ambivalence about privacy. On the one hand, we most value the privacy that protects freedom of expression and worship, and worry that government may restrict it. On the other hand, in everyday life we focus on small, incessant invasions of privacy that come in telemarketing calls and too-open credit records, and we'd like the government to address these annoyances. A USA Weekend nationwide poll of adults on privacy highlights this sense that the government is at once the enemy and the defender of our privacy.

Let's start with technology. Until recently, no one had to know what you bought, read or said to your friends, unless you chose to share it. Snooping was hard work, and it could be dangerous. So, for most people, privacy was not a contested question but a settled condition. Your zone of privacy kept you perfectly secure within your home, your doctor's office, your bank and your circle of friends.

In the past decade or so, technology has changed all that. Computerized records may list every book you borrow or buy, as Monica Lewinsky learned to her chagrin in 1998. If you offer your frank opinion about race relations or an awkward sexual anecdote over e-mail, you run the risk it will be monitored and recorded. If you share it online or say it in an Internet chat room, it probably will stay there forever, for the delectation of a future date, divorce lawyer or investigative reporter. Workplace drug tests draw a chemical map of how employees spend their evenings and weekends. And giving credit card information and Social Security numbers can invite "identity thieves" to run up your bills, possibly wrecking your credit for years.

These new threats to privacy have convinced us there is a problem. That's why an overwhelming 88% of poll respondents are concerned about their privacy and consider protecting it important. Beyond that, there isn't much agreement about what the threats to privacy are, where they come from or what we ought to do about them. Take the government first: More than 40% of respondents consider it the greatest threat to their privacy, more so than corporations, police or the media. Yet at the same time, more than half say current laws do an inadequate job of protecting privacy. In other words, we're alarmed because the government is doing too much, and angry it isn't doing more.

Demanding more and less at the same time is a common American attitude toward government: Consider voters who want to shrink government, but also want to increase military spending, as one example. It isn't surprising to see the same ambivalence toward government reflected in the privacy poll.

Moreover, although the government was cited as the greatest threat to privacy in general, respondents ranked irritations like junk mail and telemarketing calls as the most worrisome privacy invasions of day-to-day life. It is the marketing departments of corporations, not the FBI, that engage in these practices. (By contrast, only about a third of respondents objected to cameras that photograph cars running red lights.) Private information is gathered and disseminated because it's useful to marketers and news-channel programmers, not because the government is trying to control people's personal decisions.

That the new threats to privacy come mainly from business, not government, is reflected in the steps people actually take to protect their privacy. In the past year, well over half the respondents refused to give out their Social Security number or credit card information, more than a third limited the information printed on their checks, and about a sixth installed privacy software on their computers or blocked unsolicited e-mail from marketers. These are attempts to stymie salespeople, not federal officials. Yet despite this, fewer than one-fifth of respondents list "corporations" as the leading threat to their privacy.

The discrepancy doesn't mean people aren't thinking. More likely, respondents are distinguishing between "domestic privacy," which is about controlling our space, and the more elevated "privacy of conscience." Domestic privacy guarantees the ordinary privilege of not being disturbed at home, harassed on the street, constantly interrupted -- the kind of privacy teenagers demand by locking their bedroom doors, and homeowners by putting blinds on the windows. When we get phone solicitations during dinner or someone keeps track of what we buy, we feel our space is violated. Domestic privacy is mainly threatened, so far, by corporations and marketers.

Privacy of conscience includes the freedom to believe what we believe, to worship as we see fit or not at all, to express our convictions, to explore unpopular or even despised ideas. History has taught us to identify invasions of this privacy with the state. In China, it is the government that censors books and jails writers. In the United States, local school boards, state legislatures and city governments still try (sometimes successfully) to limit what people can read or discuss in public. It is an admirable feature of American culture that we consider protecting political privacy a graver matter than avoiding uninvited phone calls.

Saying the government is the greatest threat to privacy doesn't mean that IRS agents are breathing down our necks, but rather that we value privacy of conscience most highly and expect that any threats to it will come from censorship laws, not marketing campaigns. Right now, though, the most pressing problems are threats to domestic privacy, and the threats come from the private sector.

But we should see threats to domestic privacy as hazardous for privacy of conscience, because the two are connected in ways that become more evident every day. If your neighbors, boss or co-workers know you are reading a controversial book or discussing divisive issues online, they can impose all kinds of sanctions, from the cold shoulder to the pink slip. Just knowing about these sanctions, let alone experiencing them, could keep you from reading and speaking freely. In the short term, that may well be a much more insidious threat to privacy than any assault by the relatively mild-mannered U.S. government.

It is interesting to note that the same issue has a different inflection for young people who have grown up in a world where Marketing is everywhere. People my age, 25, and younger remember watching the commercial-laden Channel One in our public schools, reading ads on the walls as we waited in lunch lines, and seeing a brand name on every T-shirt and sneaker. We are unsurprised by ads on Web sites, product placements in movies, and commercial tie-ins with virtually every public event. For that reason, only 23% of people ages 18-24 polled by USA WEEKEND say they consider telemarketing calls "extremely invasive" of their privacy. That's less than half the rate for poll respondents over age 55. Young people are also far more likely than their elders to believe that current laws do an adequate job of protecting their privacy. This suggests they don't feel unduly harassed every day by marketers, because they don't perceive unsolicited calls and mailings as serious invasions of privacy.

What is not yet clear is whether, in the long run, young people will become more or less defensive of privacy as technology creates more incremental invasions. My hunch is that we will care more, not less, about the invasions that threaten privacy of conscience. There are some hints of this in the poll results. Although they show a marked tolerance for telemarketing and junk mail, the poll gives no evidence that young respondents object less than anyone else to companies' tracking computer use and online purchases. Nor do they appear less likely to have installed privacy software on their computers in the past year. They do not seem more tolerant of random employer drug tests than any other group.

These numbers likely reflect differences in experience. Because they are computer-savvy, and because they occupy entry-level jobs where drug tests are common, young people are more exposed to these threats. But their responses also suggest that young people are feeling defensive of their privacy wherever it is actually threatened, and looking for ways to protect it. As this generation grows older and more politically savvy, its members may begin looking to laws, in addition to privacy software, to keep their private affairs private.

They will enter a political arena where privacy is likely already to be a charged issue. Privacy is how we maintain a fragile balance between the values of the majority and the freedom of individuals. The First Amendment and drawn shades protect one of the paradoxical commitments of a free society: that people will be at liberty to do things many others dislike or abhor, from reading anarchist pamphlets or KKK literature to cultivating unorthodox sexual practices. When the walls of privacy move, individual freedom can shrink. Personal decisions become matters also for neighbors, employers or the police. Changes in technology are rapidly moving the walls of privacy, and we have far to go in deciding what, in an uncertain new world, we will protect.


Go to top

Results of our exclusive poll
Most important finding:
43% say the government poses the greatest threat to their privacy
24% say the media pose the greatest threat
18% say corporations pose the greatest threat

Findings with political implications:
84% say too many people have access to their credit report
79% say too many people have access to their financial records
62% say too many people have access to their driving record
61% say too many people have access to their medical records

We want to be let alone ...
Percentage of respondents who consider the following an invasion of privacy:
75% Phone calls at home from telemarketers
65% Internet companies tracking computer use, transactions, etc.
60% Junk mail
47% Unsolicited e-mails from marketing companies

... unless it's for our own good
72% Would be supportive if an employer asked them to take a random drug test
61% Do not consider cameras that catch red-light runners an invasion of privacy

We're taking matters into our own hands:
In the past 12 months, percentage of respondents who have ...
61% Refused to give out their credit card number
58% Refused to give out their Social Security number
38% Limited the amount of information printed on checks
16% Installed privacy software on their computers
15% Put a block on e-mail spam
82% Done one or more of the above

There's a generation gap:
53% of American adults are extremely concerned with their ability to keep personal information private
26% of 18- to 24-year-olds agree

43% of American adults think protecting their privacy is a problem now
70% expect it to become worse in five years
18% of 18- to 24-year-olds think protecting their privacy is a problem now
45% expect it to become worse in five years

51% of American adults think current laws do an inadequate job of protecting their right to privacy
35% of 18- to 24-year-olds agree

Scientific poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. International among a random sample of 1,017 adults nationwide, May 11-14. Margin of error: plus or minus 2 percentage points. Margin of error is higher when comparing subgroups.


Go to top

Protect your privacy

It takes smarts and hard work today to keep personal information private. Here are some steps you can take to safeguard your identity:

  • Remove your Social Security number from your checks.
  • Don't carry your Social Security card. Keep birth certificates in a safe place.
  • Ask why before giving out your Social Security number. Only your employer needs it, for tax purposes. All others, including banks, use it as a convenient identifier.
  • Know the privacy policies at work, your doctor's office, your bank, and online shopping pages or catalogs you order from. Your personal info should not be given out without your consent.
  • Opt out of direct marketing associations that sell their membership lists.
  • Use e-cash or "digicash" (digicash.com) to make online purchases.
  • Shred pre-approved credit card applications before you discard them.
  • Report any suspicions to the Social Security Administration or the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline (1-877-IDTHEFT).
  • Use junkbusters.com, the-cloak.com or idzap.com to cover your Internet trail (epic.org has a complete list of privacy tools).
  • Get your name removed from telemarketers' and junk-mail lists.

-- Krisha Chachra


Photograph by Robert Sebree for USA WEEKEND

Scientific poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. International among a random sample of 1,017 adults nationwide, May 11-14. Margin of error: plus or minus 2 percentage points. Margin of error is higher when comparing subgroups.

Go to the top
Privacy poll results:

Q1. When it comes to information you consider personal, how concerned are you with your ability to keep it private?

ALL

Level of Concern

Men

Women

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

53%

Extremely concerned

48%

57%

26%

51%

52%

64%

59%

58%

35%

Somewhat concerned

37%

32%

49%

38%

40%

29%

28%

27%

4%

Somewhat unconcerned

5%

3%

9%

5%

3%

2%

2%

5%

8%

Not concerned at all

9%

7%

15%

6%

5%

4%

10%

10%

1%

Don’t know

1%

1%

1%

1%

0

1%

1%

1%

ALL

Level of Concern

Men

Women

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

88%

Concerned

85%

90%

75%

89%

92%

93%

87%

85%

12%

Unconcerned

14%

10%

24%

11%

8%

6%

12%

15%

Q3. Which one of the following institutions do you think poses the greatest threat to your privacy?

All

Institution

Whites

Blacks

43%

Government

44%

41%

24%

Media

23%

33%

18%

Corporations

19%

9%

6%

Police

6%

9%

8%

Don’t know/None of these

8%

7%

Q4. Overall, do you think current laws do an adequate or inadequate job of protecting your right to privacy?

ALL

laws

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

43%

Adequate

62%

50%

39%

37%

39%

37%

51%

Inadequate

35%

44%

56%

60%

53%

53%

6%

Don’t know

3%

6%

4%

3%

7%

10%

Q5. For each of the following statements, please say whether you strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with it:

Strongly agree

Agree

Disagree

Strongly disagree

Statement

49%

36%

9%

2%

Too many people have access to your credit report.

44%

36%

14%

3%

Too many people have access to your financial records.

25%

36%

30%

4%

Too many people have access to your medical records.

25%

37%

27%

3%

Too many people have access to your driving record.

15%

32%

39%

5%

Too many people have access to your academic records.

Q6. Do you consider each of the following to be an invasion of your privacy, or not?

Invasive

Not invasive

Condition

75%

22%

Phone calls at home from telemarketers

65%

17%

Internet companies tracking your computer use, transactions, habits and demographics.

60%

38%

Junk mail

59%

35%

Someone being able to find out what library books you've checked out or videos you’ve rented

47%

32%

Unsolicited e-mails from marketing companies

35%

61%

Cameras that catch cars running red lights

29%

62%

Caller ID

Q7. In the last 12 months, which, if any, of the following steps have you taken to protect your privacy? Have you:

Percentage saying yes

Steps to protect your privacy

61%

Refused to give out your credit card number

58%

Refused to give out your Social Security number

38%

Limited the amount of information printed on your checks.

16%

Installed privacy software on your computer

15%

Put a block on e-mail spam

18%

Don’t know/None of these

Percentage who did one or more of the above in the last 12 months:

All

Steps to protect privacy

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

82%

Took 1+ steps

71%

87%

86%

82%

82%

76%

Q10. Of the two-thirds who have access to the Internet: Which one of the following statements best describes how you feel about shopping online?

Shopping online

Men

Women

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Won’t shop online because you don’t trust sending personal information via the Internet.

31%

50%

39%

43%

31%

42%

51%

Won’t shop online for reasons other than privacy.

17%

16%

14%

12%

24%

18%

14%

Shop online and believe your personal information is secure.

17%

14%

20%

14%

15%

10%

19%

Shop online despite worries of transmitting personal information.

25%

11%

20%

21%

18%

21%

8%

Don’t know/None of these

11%

8%

7%

10%

11%

10%

8%

Q11. Some people think new technology will further invade their privacy in coming years. Others feel new regulations will provide adequate protection. Which of the following best represents your thinking on the issue of privacy now and in five years?

All

Privacy protection

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

43%

Protecting privacy IS a problem now

18%

49%

46%

52%

41%

47%

53%

Protecting privacy is NOT a problem now

78%

50%

53%

47%

58%

45%

3%

Don’t know/None of these

5%

1%

1%

2%

2%

8%

Q12. Of those employed full or part time: How would you feel if your employer asked you to take a random drug test?

All

Feelings about a drug test

11%

Extremely violated

15%

Mildly violated

72%

Supportive of the policy

2%

Don’t know


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