January 18, 2022

Government Surveillance: New Pew Internet Survey Findings on “Privacy Strategies” of American Adults Post Snowden

The new report from Pew Internet was written by Lee Rainie and Mary Madden. I share a couple of comments below.

From the Report

A new survey by the Pew Research Center asked American adults what they think of the programs, the way they are run and monitored, and whether they have altered their communication habits and online activities since learning about the details of the surveillance. The notable findings in this survey fall into two broad categories: 1) the ways people have personally responded in light of their awareness of the government surveillance programs and 2) their views about the way the programs are run and the people who should be targeted by government surveillance.

Highlights From the Report

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

25% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (22% of all adults) say they have changed the patterns of their own use of various technological platforms “a great deal” or “somewhat” since the Snowden revelations.

Surveillance Programs Prompt Some to Change the Way They Use Technology


One potential reason some have not changed their behaviors is that 54% believe it would be “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find tools and strategies that would help them be more private online and in using their cell phones. Still, notable numbers of citizens say they have not adopted or even considered some of the more commonly available tools that can be used to make online communications and activities more private:

53% have not adopted or considered using a search engine that doesn’t keep track of a user’s search history and another 13% do not know about these tools

46% have not adopted or considered using email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and another 31% do not know about such programs.

43% have not adopted or considered adding privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins likeDoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger and another 31% do not know such plug-ins.

41% have not adopted or considered using proxy servers that can help them avoid surveillance and another 33% do not know about this.

40% have not adopted or considered using anonymity software such as Tor and another 39% do not know about what that is.

Direct to Full Text Report ||| PDF Version (37 pages)

Comment From Gary Price, infoDOCKET Founder/Editor:

There is a lot to discuss in this report but for now allow me to  share two comments about what I hope the librarian community takes away from this report. These two comments will not be new to many of you.

1. We (libraries, librarians, and library vendors) need to do more to protect the digital privacy of library users from those who may wish to see it including the government. Reader privacy is at the core of librarianship and is clearly stated in the ALA ethics statement and those of many other library groups around the world.

However, the privacy that the library community has worked very hard to give our patrons in the pre-digital library world and that has been appreciated by all has not kept-up in the digital age. By the way, I’m not only talking about how and what data is transmitted over the Internet, shared with third parties, etc. but also how user data is stored either locally or somewhere at a data center.

All of this is troubling, disappointing and needs to change. The good news in recent weeks and months is that appears the wheels are now in motion to make some changes especially from a technical standpoint.

2. When I began getting interested in online privacy/data security especially as it relates to libraries I have said and the Pew survey findings point this out is that the public (of all ages) wants and needs to no more.

The report includes this paragraph

These figures [on behavior change, included above] may in fact understate the lack of awareness among Americans because noteworthy numbers of respondents answered “not applicable to me” on these questions even though virtually all of them are internet and cell phone users.

I have said many times that the lack of awareness (by the public) of privacy issues and tools is a perfect opportunity for the library community to be a source of this important information and an educator about what can be done to minimize concerns. What I’m talking about here is more than providing flyers or web links. However, this only has a chance to become a reality if we, those who will share info/teach it, have a basic understanding about just a few key issues and technologies.

One thing we here all to often is how can a library and librarian relevant in the Internet age. Those of us in the library profession could list hundreds of reasons. However, what we know is true might not be what the public understands or believes.

Issues like digital privacy and government surveillance provide the library community with an important and 21st century topic (globally) where awareness is low and the information need is high.

Finally, even if/when major technical issues are fixed as far as library resources that will end the need described above. With the digital world moving so quickly there will constantly be challenges to privacy that the public will need clear, unbiased info, and training.

See Also: Research Continues to Show that Online Privacy is Important to Young People
New findings from a survey of teens continues to show what we’ve seen in other reports.

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.