Creepy or Not? Your Privacy Concerns Likely Reflect Your Politics

Posted April 30, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

Are you creeped out by the idea of a company checking a job candidate’s credit history before deciding whether to hire her or him? Your answer could be tied to your political views.

A new poll on surveillance from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that Americans are deeply divided over tracking, both online and in real life. And political affiliation is a main predictor of Americans’ emotional reactions to surveillance, the researchers found.

Among people who identified themselves as Democrats, for instance, 62 percent said they felt “creeped out” by the idea of companies checking job applicants’ credit history before hiring them. By contrast, half of independents and just 29 percent of Republicans felt creeped out.

“The Republicans are most likely to be positive about surveillance,” said Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of the study. “The Democrats are most likely to be negative, and independents are always in the middle.”

“It’s just a chasm,” he added.

The study, published Monday, focused specifically on Americans’ emotional responses to snooping techniques that could disproportionately affect low-income populations. Among other things, the survey asked participants about practices like police profiling and landlords subscribing to profiling databases to screen potential tenants. Turow said the report was the first national study of its kind.

The survey was based on phone interviews conducted in January and February with a nationally representative sample of 1,499 adults in the United States. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Although Republicans, Democrats and independents in the survey had divided emotional reactions on various snooping techniques, the majority of respondents said that the surveillance was expected. Whether Americans like it or not, pervasive tracking is becoming a fact of daily life.

Facebook as the Exception

The report coincides with a national reckoning on privacy in the United States.

In the wake of recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling service, harvested the personal details of up to 87 million Facebook users, many lawmakers have started publicly questioning widespread online data-mining by tech companies.

While Republicans and Democrats are divided about surveillance, there was one situation that elicited strikingly similar responses among participants, no matter their political party: Facebook showing users ads based on interests they expressed on their Facebook accounts.

Although the Annenberg School study was conducted before the data-mining scandal erupted, nearly half of respondents overall said they felt angry over the Facebook ad-targeting example. Among them, 48 percent of Democrats felt mad about Facebook tracking, along with 47 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.

Those results suggest that if members of Congress hope to make consumer privacy legislation a bipartisan issue, Facebook could be their likeliest common ground. In recent weeks, several senators introduced bills focused on Facebook and other online providers. It is too soon to tell whether they will gain traction.

The Schism Over Surveillance

The survey asked participants about different hypothetical situations, like the one involving Facebook. Another one involved landlords subscribing to databases that profiled the past behavior of potential tenants. And one involved government agencies tracking where people who received food stamps bought their groceries.

Interviewers asked survey participants how they felt about each example, directing them to choose between paired responses like “happy” or “sad,” “safe” or “threatened,” “unbothered” or “creeped out.”

In the survey, Republicans often said they felt “unbothered” by surveillance practices and even “pleased.”

One question, for instance, described police officers using surveillance techniques to closely monitor “people who they think have characteristics that are common among criminals.” Among survey respondents, 62 percent of Republicans said they felt “happy” about the police example, compared with 45 percent of independents and just 31 percent of Democrats.

The Annenberg study is not the first survey on Americans’ responses to snooping.

A study published last fall by researchers at the Data & Society Research Institute in Manhattan found that a variety of factors, including income and political affiliation, correlated with respondents’ attitudes on privacy. (Turow was an adviser on the Data & Society study.)

“We saw that in general Democrats have a higher concern across an array of scenarios about the use of their data,” said Mary Madden, a researcher who leads an initiative on privacy in low socioeconomic status populations at Data & Society. “Republicans are in general less concerned about those practices.”

Turow said the survey responses in his new study suggested that many Republicans lacked empathy regarding surveillance practices that could disproportionately harm people of lower income.

“Democrats seem more interested or more likely to say ‘It may not be directly affecting me, I feel safe, but I still feel angry about it,'” Turow said.

In the Annenberg survey, participants were not told that certain hypothetical situations in the study could have discriminatory results.

“It would be interesting to see a version of this that compared responses if respondents knew the impact of the scenarios,” said Madden, the Data & Society researcher.

The Normalization of Tracking

There was one trend that emerged among the survey respondents, regardless of their politics.

In every situation in the study, the majority of survey participants said they felt the tracking practices were expected, not surprising. In other words, in a culture where consumers readily share their locations with Siri, their grocery lists with Alexa and their fingerprints with a federal program to speed them through airport security checks, many Americans are growing accustomed to the idea of increased monitoring.

That normalization of surveillance has privacy experts warning that pervasive tracking could escalate in ways citizens might not like.

“Over time, political and commercial forces can manipulate you and others to allow for even the most vulnerable people in society to have their data used in ways that may negatively affect them,” Turow said. “These apartment house scenarios, these grocery scenarios, these police scenarios have consequences.”