Public Values Privacy Over National Security, Cost Savings
Information technology has provided many benefits to society, but it has also put Americans’ personal privacy at greater risk, forcing people to examine trade-offs with much greater scrutiny.
While the public expects the government to protect it from terrorism, many are outraged about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program. While everyone enjoys the convenience of credit cards and e-commerce, huge identity theft scandals have compromised the data of tens of millions of people and upset consumers. And while social media and smartphone users love free or low-cost apps, users often get access by allowing companies to track their Internet browsing/buying habits, friendships and locations.
Are we willing to give up our privacy to protect national security? How about to obtain lower-cost products and services?
The conventional wisdom says the answer in both cases is “yes,” but the 2014 Public Affairs Pulse survey reveals that the answer is generally “no.” Even more surprisingly, younger adults are more concerned about protecting their personal privacy than are older adults.
Privacy vs. National Security
Only 42 percent say they are willing to give up “some privacy in order to help protect national security,” while a majority (56%) say it is more important that their personal privacy be maintained in all or almost all situations.
Age is a factor in the willingness to sacrifice privacy for national security purposes. Millennials are the most vocal in preferring to maintain their privacy (61%), followed by Gen X-ers (57%) and Baby Boomers (55%). Older adults are much more split on the subject, with about as many saying their privacy should be maintained as saying they would give up some privacy for the sake of national security.
When asked if they are willing to trade the loss of personal privacy in order to receive lower-cost products and services, more than seven out of ten Americans (72%) prefer to maintain their privacy in all or almost all situations. Only 25 percent opt for access to lower prices.
Age plays a small role in this second privacy question, although each generation — young and old — would rather preserve its privacy in all or almost all instances. Generation X adults are the most insistent about their preference for maintaining their privacy over gaining access to lower-cost goods and services. Baby Boomers and Millennials are almost as adamant.
Understanding Privacy Preferences
About half of all Americans (48%) say they want to maintain their privacy in both situations. Just under one in five (17%) say they would trade their privacy for greater national security and for lower prices.
A further breakdown of the responses on these two questions reveals sometimes surprising and often puzzling results:
- Republicans (39%) are less likely than Democrats (45%) to say they are willing to give up some privacy for national security.
- Attitudes toward the federal government, including favorability and trust, make little difference in the trade-off of privacy for national security. Opinions about the ethical standards of public officials and federal workers are not related to views on privacy.
- Those making $75,000 a year or more are less likely than those at other income levels to say privacy should be maintained in the face of national security issues (49%), but they are more likely to say their privacy should be protected (76%) rather than being exchanged for lower prices.
- In terms of national security trade-offs, those living in the Northeast show the least concern about holding onto their privacy, with 48 percent taking that view, compared with 58 percent across the other three Census regions.
- Attitudes toward major companies have only a minor relationship, with those who are favorable toward major companies being slightly more willing to give up privacy for lower prices. Opinions about the ethical standards of corporate officials and workers likewise have little relationship to these attitudes.
- A majority of civic activists (50%) are willing to trade privacy for enhanced security, but only 40 percent of non-activists would make this trade. Civic activists are more engaged in the public sphere than others, whether by inclination, personality, passion or focus. Roughly two in ten American adults are categorized as activists.
The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted June 16-29, 2014, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,609 adults nationwide.
 Results across generations are not statistically different.
 This regional difference does not appear to be related to age, race, party, ideology nor a number of other variables.