NOTE: This post was originally published on June 13, 2019
A representative survey, commissioned by ExpressVPN and undertaken by Propeller Insights, produced many surprising results while confirming some of the industry’s and the public’s suspicions.
Over 1,000 individuals representing the age, gender, and geographical makeup of the United States were asked about their experiences and worries regarding online privacy and technology.
VPN usage is high
In the survey, 29.3% of respondents said they had used a virtual private network or a proxy network. The reasons for VPN usage are manifold but fall into three main categories:
To access content
Among those who have used a VPN, 26.7% use it to access their corporate or academic network, 19.9% to access content otherwise not available in their region, and 16.9% to circumvent censorship.
To avoid surveillance
The most popular reasons to use a VPN are related to surveillance, with 41.7% of respondents aiming to protect against sites seeing their IP, 26.4% to prevent their internet service provider (ISP) from gathering information, and 16.6% to shield against their local government.
To stay safe online
Over 50% use a VPN to protect against security threats, with risks associated with using public Wi-Fi (50.8%) and hackers (51.1%) being equally good reasons for people to use a VPN.
People believe in their mobile devices
People generally trust their mobile phones. Only 30.5% of Android users are “not at all” or “not very” confident in their devices. iOS fares slightly better, with 27.4% of users expressing a lack of confidence.
People are less concerned with broadcasting their location than their words: Users are much more likely to let apps on their phones or tablets access their location (78.7%) than use the microphone (58.9%).
Smart device users fear hacks
Devices that are, in addition to their core functionality, networked and equipped with sensors such as cameras or microphones are generally described as “smart.”
As part of their functionality (either known or unknown to the user), they often communicate with the manufacturer and send data to remote servers. Some may also be remotely controlled by the user—and possibly unauthorized third parties, if they are not properly connected.
Almost a quarter (24.8%) of survey respondents do not own any smart devices at all, while almost as many (24.4%) always turn off their devices’ microphones if they are not using them. However, one-fifth (21.2%) say they always leave the microphone on.
The numbers are similar for camera use. With these figures, along with the number of people who either do not know if their devices have a microphone or who only rarely turn it off (29.6%), we might conclude that about half of the population does not value privacy. However, 85% say they are extremely (24.7%), very (23.4%), or somewhat (28.0%) concerned about smart devices monitoring their personal habits.
But far more people are concerned about getting hacked. Only 19.4% are not concerned that a cyberattacker could hijack and effectively assume control of smart home devices, with 50.5% being “extremely” or “very concerned.”
Google incites spying fear
Americans aren’t as worried about their government spying on them as is often assumed. Among the respondents, 15.9% say they fear the FBI surveillance, and only 6.4% fear the NSA spying on them.
People are by far most worried about information gathering by ISPs (23.2%) and Facebook (20.5%). Google spying is more of a worry for people (5.9%) than snooping by employers (2.6%) or family members (5.1%).
Facebook likes are worth it
The survey shows that 46.7% of people do not care that Facebook likes could be used to determine political orientation, slightly less than the 49.2% who don’t worry about their sexual orientation being known.
Government interventions and policy
Net neutrality continues to be popular (70% more respondents support it rather then don’t), but 51.4% say they don’t know enough about it to form an opinion.
According to the survey, 82.9% also believe Congress should enact laws to require tech companies to get permission before collecting personal data. Even more, 85.2% believe there should be fines for companies that lose users’ data, and 90.2% believe there should be further fines if the data is misused. Of the respondents, 47.4% believe Congress should go as far as breaking up Facebook and Google.
Two-thirds of Americans support laws that would require pornography platforms to verify that users are over 18 before letting them use the site, as is the case in the United Kingdom. Content blocks do not have majority support but continue to be popular at 42.3%.
Looking forward, when asked which 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Americans trust to protect their online data, noted privacy advocate Bernie Sanders got 26% of the vote.
- 26% said Bernie Sanders
- 24% said Joe Biden
- 13% said Beto O’Rourke
- 12% said Elizabeth Warren
- 10% said Kamala Harris
- 9% said Cory Booker
Additionally, when asked which 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Americans trust most to preserve a free and open internet, Bernie Sanders topped the survey again.
- 29% said Bernie Sanders
- 20% said Joe Biden
- 13% said Elizabeth Warren
- 12% said Beto O’Rourke
- 12% said Kamala Harris
- 10% said Cory Booker
Americans do care about their privacy
Contrary to common assumptions, Americans are undertaking real and effective measures to counter their invasions of privacy.
People are not worried about the government, however, but rather ISPs and social media companies. There’s also overwhelming support to limit the ability of tech companies to gather and use personal data, with some going as far as to wish for more content filters and age restrictions.