In 2020, personal data is more valuable than ever — serving as a key component in everything from influencing elections, to maintaining public safety amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Tech companies like Facebook make billions of dollars collecting and selling the information we share online, from our names and addresses, to our political opinions, private conversations, and physical location. US citizens’ communications are also under constant surveillance by the government, which has access to the same sensitive data as Facebook (and more), supposedly for our protection.
For most Americans, the question isn’t whether our data is being tracked (it is), but who, if anyone, can we trust to handle it responsibly?
And when it comes to the two most prolific collectors of personal data in the US — Facebook and the government — who can we trust more?
Leaks that American intelligence secretly monitors citizens’ communications have done little to assure the public that the government follows ethical data practices.
However, since its inception, Facebook has been plagued with security issues — most notably in the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, when 50 million users’ personal data was harvested without consent for political advertising.
Despite Facebook’s atrocious data-privacy record, we found that 32% of Americans still trust the tech giant more than their elected officials with their personal data.
Has the US government failed its citizens to such an extent that Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is the lesser of two evils? We asked over 1,000 Americans who they trust more with their data — and now we know the answer.
With Age Comes Wisdom
Our data shows shockingly high trust in Facebook across the entire working population of the US. This trust peaked among 35–44 year olds, 39% of whom said they trust Facebook more than their own government.
Baby boomers were an outlier, and the least likely to trust Facebook by a wide margin. Not coincidentally, this age group makes up the minority of Facebook’s users worldwide, and is therefore reluctant to use Facebook in the first place (and hand over their data).
In our findings, this age group was extremely cynical about Facebook’s shady data-handling practices, and questioned the company’s motivations.
One 68-year-old male said:
“I would never use Facebook in my private life. The entire premise of the platform is to get you to willingly divulge your personal and private information. […] Facebook has little regard to protect the privacy of its users nor to stop the spread of disinformation. Facebook is primarily driven by profit and not by integrity.”
Boomers don’t trust Facebook’s business model — and they understand that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Women Are More Trusting Than Men
Women were significantly more willing than men to hand their private information to Facebook, with our data revealing that 38% of women versus 28% of men trusted Facebook over the government with their privacy.
Researchers have claimed that women are biologically wired for social networking, because platforms like Facebook help create connections and deepen friendships. Studies indicate that women are more likely to disclose personal information on their profiles, suggesting they may be less concerned about the privacy ramifications of sharing data with a corporation because of the social benefits it provides.
However, by being highly active on social media, women are also driving online advertising trends and dominating the narrative of this space.
If women are the real power behind social media, perhaps they’ll be the ones putting pressure on companies like Facebook to clean up their data handling practices in the future.
Our data showed stark differences by region in the US. Perhaps unsurprisingly, southerners were the least likely demographic to trust the federal government with their personal data, and were the most trustful of a private corporation.
It’s telling that over a third of southerners align themselves with a conglomerate that callously sells their data, instead of the government elected to serve their interests. Are old biases still so strong in the US that southerners would gamble their privacy before they trust Washington?
If the US is split over where people place their trust, Facebook itself is partly to blame. In the Trump era, the platform has become synonymous with “fake news” and the spread of misinformation. Unlike other tech giants (such as Google), Facebook has refused to restrict how untruthful political ads are targeted at users — cementing itself as a toxic and manipulative influence over US politics.
Trust in Government Is at Rock Bottom
Most Facebook users know that the platform makes its money by collecting their data and online activities to serve up targeted ads. With Facebook’s sinister record of putting profit before users’ interests, why do one third of Americans still trust the company more than the government?
One explanation is that the high trust in Facebook we discovered is merely a symptom of a long-decaying confidence in the powers that be. According to a recent study, only 17% of Americans said they trust the government to do what is right. This figure has been steadily decreasing for years, and now is near an all time low.
In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the extent to which the National Security Agency (NSA) spies on the public’s communication data, regardless of whether there is evidence of a terrorist threat. The American Civil Liberties Union still believes the NSA’s power goes beyond the constitution and threatens US citizens’ privacy.
Facebook ruthlessly siphons data for profit, but it’s not surprising that many Americans find this practice less threatening than the government’s sweeping surveillance practices that have gone beyond their rights.
The US Is the Wild West of Data Privacy Legislation
Personal data isn’t just your social media profile — it’s everything you’ve ever shared online, from your credit card number, to facial recognition scans. If you’ve ever tagged your location as you’ve picked your kid up from a baseball game, that information has been recorded and stored.
Needless to say, there’s a serious risk if this sensitive data falls into the wrong hands.
Despite the inherent danger of mishandling personal data, no federal data privacy law exists in the US to keep either corporations or governing bodies in check.
Laws exist elsewhere in the world to control the flow of data and protect users rights. Most notably the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, which has slapped several big companies with fines in the millions of dollars, including Google ($57 million), British Airways ($230 million), and Marriott ($123 million).
The best the US has to offer is the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which falls far short of the standard set by the GDPR. Although the CCPA gives California residents the right to sue over a data breach, the law has been subject to a sustained lobbying campaign from Silicon Valley that has watered down its requirements.
Ultimately, the CCPA is toothless.
Because the government has failed to step up to the privacy challenges posed by the digital age, the onus has fallen on private companies to implement their own measures to build trust with users.
Since being fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceiving users, Facebook has given users additional control over their privacy settings and published more detailed documents describing the data it collects. These are largely superficial gestures, but they convey a message that the US government has absolutely failed to communicate — that people’s lives online are important, and that their personal data is worth protecting.
What Does the Future Hold?
As new consumer technology develops, we will witness new categories of personal data being created — and with them, sophisticated new threats. Analysts predict that privacy will become a premium product, much like an “organic” or “fair trade” label, available only to those who are willing (or can afford) to pay for it.
Coupled with this, in a post-coronavirus world, increased surveillance and less privacy are likely to be the new normal. Monitoring citizens could evolve from a way to mitigate security threats, to being a crucial part of protecting public health.
Personal data is already a currency, but with more internet users becoming aware of its value, pressure will mount for companies like Facebook to act responsibly, and on the government to finally pass legislation that hasn’t been diluted by tech lobbyists.
In this troubling climate, the US government has the opportunity to champion citizens’ data rights — first, by holding companies like Facebook accountable for their transgressions, and second, by being more open and transparent about their own data tracking.
Whether the US government can regain citizens’ trust is uncertain — but we can hope that the future of data privacy involves increased transparency in how both private companies and the government handle our data, and more power being given back to users.