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Most Americans Feel They've Lost Control Of Their Online Data

A collage of profile pictures featured on a break room wall at the North Carolina Facebook Data Center in 2012.
Rainier Ehrhardt
Getty Images
A collage of profile pictures featured on a break room wall at the North Carolina Facebook Data Center in 2012.

On Monday, Facebook began notifying the up to 87 million users whose information may have been compromised and given to Cambridge Analytica. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, lawmakers like Sen. Bill Nelson have raised privacy concerns.

"If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have privacy anymore," Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said to Zuckerberg Tuesday.

But how much do Americans care about the privacy of their information — and how do they distinguish which information they're comfortable sharing?

Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at Pew Research Center, has been polling Americans on these issues for years. The picture that the data paints is complicated, he says. But one thing he has found is that Americans do not feel in control of their online data.

"Three-quarters of Americans say that control matters a lot to them," Rainie says. "But 91 percent of Americans say that they feel that all Americans have lost control of their data and don't really know what they would do to re-capture some of that control."

Interview Highlights

On how much Americans care about their Internet privacy

Americans are all over the place when it comes to privacy. The most fundamental level when you ask them the straight-on question, "Do you care about it or not?" They do care. When you then talk to them about specific trade-offs, they're a little bit more in a transactional frame of mind: "I'm going to give up a little bit of personal information — what am I going to get in return?"

But the one thing I think that's predominant in our data now is that Americans are confused about what's happening. They don't exactly know what's being collected. They don't know what's being done with it once the data are collected, and they're totally freaked out about the number of data breaches that have occurred.

On where Americans draw the line

Their basic purchasing habits — they are not very worried about them being captured and used. The cultural taste they have [and] even their political views and religious views don't register very high on things that they consider sensitive. They are very concerned about their Social Security numbers, their health information, the content of private communications: what's going on in the email and texts, like that. So not all information is created equal for people, and not all people share the same boundary lines.

On generational differences

There's a really interesting generational story that isn't quite what the stereotype would have it. Yes, younger people are much more active online, much more forgiving of some of the circumstances when their data are captured and used in some ways to deliver products and services to them. But they're also more vigilant than their elders in monitoring. They watch what's posted about them, they watch what pictures their name is tagged in, and they're very concerned about the way that they present themselves online. So they curate their identity and their reputation very aggressively.

On his advice to lawmakers

One of the reasons we intensively studied privacy since 2013 and the first revelations by Edward Snowden [the government contractor who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency] about government surveillance, was that we wanted to see for ourselves what the bright lines were that Americans would draw. Because we knew that both companies and the government would love to have some guidance about where the bright lines are. And the maddeningly complicated thing about this process is that different Americans draw their lines at different places. Context and the specific conditions under which people share their information matters a lot, and their time of life matters a lot. The bargain that they're being offered matters a lot, so there aren't very pronouncedly clear bright lines for all Americans in all ways.

Sam Gringlas and Selena Simmons-Duffin produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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