That paradox is captured in a new survey by Pew Research Center. It found that there is no communications channel, including email, cellphones or landlines, that the majority of Americans feel very secure using when sharing personal information. Of all the forms of communication, they trust landlines the most, and fewer and fewer people are using them.
Distrust of digital communication has only increased, Pew found, with the young expressing the most concern by some measures, in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden about online surveillance by the government. Yet Americans for now seem to grudgingly accept that these are the trade-offs of living in the digital age — or else they fear that it is too late to do anything about it.
“The reason is often they don’t have real choice,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It’s not like picking up the newspaper and realizing ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on.”
One reason is that once people are invested in a service — if they have all their social contacts on Facebook or years of email on Gmail, for instance — they have a hard time giving it up.
“It’s this modern economy that doesn’t really rely on price, but on connections and stickiness,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “The companies have done everything they can to make it impossible to go somewhere else.”
Eighty-one percent of people do not feel secure using social media to share private information. Sixty-eight percent feel that way about online chats, 59 percent about text messaging, 57 percent about email, 46 percent about talking on cellphones and 31 percent about talking on landlines.
In each case, those who said they were more aware of reports about government surveillance were more likely to say these communications were not secure.
People harbor equal distrust of advertisers and the government, Pew found. Eighty percent of users of social networks say they are concerned about advertisers or businesses gaining access to their information there, and 70 percent say they are at least somewhat concerned about the government doing so without their knowledge.
Yet highlighting the privacy paradox, 55 percent of people say they are willing to share information about themselves with web companies in order to use their services free, and 36 percent say they appreciate that these services are more efficient because they have access to this information.
The types of digital information that people consider to be most sensitive are their Social Security numbers, health information, the content of emails and phone calls and their location. They are least sensitive about their purchasing habits, media consumption, political and religious views, and the identities of their friends.
People with more education and higher incomes tend to be more sensitive about their online privacy, Pew found. And despite perceptions that young people care little about digital privacy, they often care more than older people. Email is an example. Just over half of all adults consider the content of email messages to be very sensitive. Fifty-nine percent of young adults feel that way, compared with 42 percent of older adults.
“There’s a pretty big, mounting body of evidence that suggests young adults are just as likely to care, if not more so, when it comes to awareness of government surveillance,” said Mary Madden, a senior researcher for Pew’s Internet Project and an author of the report.
Pew offered some evidence that people are inured to the trade-offs of using digital services: Ninety-one percent agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected or used by companies. They are unsure what to do about it, though.
Nearly two-thirds say they would like to do more to protect the privacy of their personal information online. About the same number think the government should do more to protect them.
There are technical methods for protecting information, like PGP, a data encryption tool. But broader fixes would most likely come through policy changes, privacy advocates say.
“The privacy survivalists will start exchanging PGP key prints, but that’s not going to work for most people,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “I think more needs to be done at the macro policy level to restore trust: update federal privacy laws, limit circumstances under which government gets access and mandate better security.”
The question is whether policy makers or their constituents will push for that — or whether they, too, have accepted privacy trade-offs as a fact of living life online.