Pew Survey highlights users changing concerns about privacy online

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Author: Alessandra Garbagnati, Legal Fellow, Privacy and Technology Project 2012

Recently, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report detailing consumer use of search engines.  The survey highlighted both that users have begun to learn how much of their personal data is exposed and their growing concern about their personal data is collected and used. Although US consumers are not yet demanding European like regulation, the Pew survey indicates that consumers are not completely comfortable with the status quo either.

Search Engine Study

The Search Engine Use* (click here for the study) project is part of the Pew Research Center, an independent research organization that conducts and studies trends among Americans. The study examined the extent to which consumers use search engines and their general satisfaction with the results.

The results of this survey generally demonstrated which groups of people were more inclined to use search engines. Despite any demographic differences, however, search engine use and satisfaction with search engine use has generally increased in the last ten years. Indeed, results showed that since the survey was last conducted, consumer perception of search engines has greatly increased. In general, the results indicated that consumers have more positive than negative perceptions about search engines.

From a privacy perspective, however, the most fascinating responses in the report were participants’ perceptions about the personal information being collected. Although participants noted that their search engine results have gotten increasingly relevant, sixty-five percent of the participants do not like personalized search results because they feel that it invades their privacy. Although these concerns seemed to be greatest among older participants, participants across demographic groups all expressed some level of discomfort with targeted advertising.

Concern Over Privacy

That consumers are increasingly expressing their concern over privacy should not be surprising. Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of privacy issues. For example, just one month ago, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a separate study on social media sites where they found that consumers across the board of all demographics have been taking measures to manage the amount of private information is visible to the public.

Corporate actions are also likely to have influenced consumer perception as well.  As noted in the Pew report, the participants’ concern over targeted search results may have been influenced by the controversy over the major changes in Google’s privacy policy. And, of course, the number of high privacy breaches of private information in the last few years may have helped increase this concern. For instance, just a few months ago, the online vendor Zappos informed its customers of a major data breach and advised them to change their passwords.

Perhaps equally unsurprising was the number of participants who were unsure of how to control the flow of their information. According to the study, only about thirty percent of the participants knew how to take measures to protect their privacy while using search engines. The previously mentioned social media study only produced marginally better results. While the numbers were smaller for younger demographics, many participants mentioned their inability to manage their private information on social media sites as well.

Whether one is comfortable with the distribution of their information online is a personal matter. People will inevitably place different value on their personal information. However, if this study reflects the concerns of the majority of Americans, then it would suggest that many people are concerned about their privacy but do not know what to do about it. This may be a result of factors like inability to manage privacy policies and privacy settings. Likewise, it could also be attributed to the fact that most participants who expressed their concern about behavioral tracking on search engines were older and may not be as technologically savvy as the younger “digital native” generations.

Taking Control

Although there are currently ways for consumers to exert control over the use of their own information, these measures should be easier to use, not just for people who have used computers their entire lives, but for all people. These controls could come in the form of more streamlined and easy to read instructions. Some organizations have already developed some measures to educate consumers. Mozilla, for instance, has worked with the idea of using simple icons that indicate the nature of the information being used on the website.

Perhaps the changes need to be made within the search engines themselves. Understanding privacy policies, let alone finding ways to opt out of disclosing personal information, is often a cumbersome experience.  For example, Google released a fairly plain language version of their new privacy policy but they might also have brought more attention to ways in which consumers can opt out of certain programs if they are uncomfortable with the use of their information.

Finally, perhaps the change needs to be made with the consumers themselves. As privacy issues continue to permeate online culture, there have been an increasing number of resources that can assist consumers in managing the use of their private information.


Pew’s recent reports have provided some interesting insight into how consumers perceive certain privacy issues online. That consumers are starting to find ways to manage the use and flow of their personal information is a hopeful thought. As the most recent study indicates however, there are still some serious issues that must be addressed.


* This study follows up on an earlier study that had been conducted in 2002. To collect the data, researchers conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of over 2000 residents in January and February of 2012.  Participants ranged in all demographics and consisted of people of different ages, races, and genders. To further cover demographics, surveys were also conducted in Spanish as well as English.


This post was originally published on the Hastings Science & Technology Blog.

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