Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Washington Post Poll Finds Increasing Concerns About Technology Trustworthiness and Privacy

Heather Kelly and Emily Guskin, Washington Post:

It’s the rare thing that Americans of all ages and across the political spectrum largely seem to agree on: They don’t trust social media services with their information and they view targeted ads as annoying and invasive, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Many Americans use social media — and most use Facebook — but 64 percent say the government should do more to rein in big tech companies.

[…]

Most Americans say they are skeptical that several Internet giants will responsibly handle their personal information and data about their online activity. And an overwhelming majority say they think tech companies don’t provide people with enough control over how their activities are tracked and used. The survey was conducted in November among a random sample of 1,122 adults nationwide.

It is worth skimming the full survey results (PDF) if you, like me, find this sort of stuff curious. Among the most notable findings is that 64% of those asked by the Post said they think increased government intervention is warranted, compared to 38% who said the same to Pew Research in 2012.

The Verge has conducted a similar survey occasionally, and posted the most recent results in October. For example, when asked whether Facebook has a positive, negative, or neutral impact on society, 36% of those polled by the Verge said it was positive, compared to just 10% of those asked by the Post. On questions of trust, those polled by the Post’s research partner were more suspicious of all tech companies than those asked by the Verge.

Perhaps the most alarming pervasive suspicion is one that is still dismissed by many experts — and the companies themselves — as an urban legend. About 7 in 10 Americans think their phone or other devices are listening in on them in ways they did not agree to. Perhaps given the steady drumbeat of damaging true stories that come out about the companies — mishandling of personal data, unchecked dangers for children, contributing to the destructive spread of misinformation and polarization — secretly activating a microphone doesn’t seem like a big leap.

No part of me believes Google or Facebook are listening to any of our conversations through devices’ microphones for the purposes of ad targeting. That narrative sure was not helped when Google failed to acknowledge a microphone in Nest thermostats a couple of years back but, even so, this belief remains a myth.

It does not surprise me that people are so distrustful. According to the Post’s survey, 56% of people also delete their web browser’s history in an attempt to evade tracking. But the technologies they are hoping to defeat run on the websites they browse; they do not rely on the browser’s stored history. Perhaps some people know that and are simply being cautious, but 79% of polled individuals also felt like tech companies generally do not provide enough control.