Almost two years after the first disclosures of government surveillance programs by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and Americans are still coming to terms with how they feel about the programs and how to live in light of them.
The documents leaked by Snowden revealed an array of activities in dozens of intelligence programs that collected data from large American technology companies, as well as the bulk collection of phone “metadata” from telecommunications companies that officials say are important to protecting national security. The metadata includes information about who phone users call, when they call, and for how long. The documents further detail the collection of Web traffic around the globe, and efforts to break the security of mobile phones and Web infrastructure.
A recent 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.
Some people have changed their behaviors in response to surveillance
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.
Those most likely to have taken these steps include adults who have heard “a lot” about the surveillance programs and those who say they have become less confident in recent months that the programs are in the public interest. Younger adults under the age of 50 are more likely than those ages 50 and older to have changed at least one of these behaviors (40% vs. 27%). There are no notable differences by political partisanship when it comes to these behavior changes.
Those who are more likely to have changed at least one of their behaviors include the people who have heard a lot about government surveillance (38% say they have changed a great deal/somewhat in at least one of these activities), those who are at least somewhat concerned about the programs (41% have changed at least one activity), and those who are concerned about government monitoring of their use of social media, search engines, cell phones, apps, and email.
Additionally, a notable share of Americans have taken specific technical steps to assert some control over their privacy and security, though most of them have done just simple things.
For instance, 25% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs are using more complex passwords.
The analysis in this report is based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted between November 26, 2014 and January 3, 2015 among a sample of 475 adults, 18 years of age or older. The survey was conducted by the GfK Group using KnowledgePanel, its nationally representative online research panel.