Whether it's identity theft, security breaches, or online hacking, most Americans are worried about their privacy. Considering the constant reports that foreign countries could be influencing U.S. elections, massive attacks on private companies and public universities, and the excessive exposure of personal data like credit card accounts and Social Security numbers, it's easy to see why people are concerned.
While there's proof of threats like these, another organization could be able to spy on us as well: the government. Fictional stories make it seem like wiretapping and internet surveillance are happening at virtually any moment, but could there be more than meets the eye?
To see who's worried or welcomes some additional oversight by Big Brother, we polled over 1,000 people. Read on as we break down Democrats' and Republicans' perceptions of being watched by their government, what people do to hinder spying, and on which ethnicities and religions they'd prefer to keep an eye.
Keeping an Eye Out
Pop culture aside, we asked people how they believed the U.S. government monitored its citizens and how it might apply to them.
A majority of people were convinced of at least three surveillance tactics: monitoring social media (almost 73 percent), listening in on phone calls (72 percent), and tracking internet search and browser history (71 percent). Fewer respondents suggested those methods were targeted at them, however. In fact, nearly 52 percent of respondents didn't think they were the focus of any surveillance efforts.
And they might be right. Government agencies like the CIA have been accused of using personal technology to monitor American citizens, but those intrusions are also said to be "very targeted." Simply put, the government probably needs a very good reason before it decides to keep tabs on your late night internet habits. Still, the idea of being watched by the government might make you feel uneasy. Nearly 32 percent of respondents suggested the government was monitoring their internet search and browsing history, and more than 1 in 4 believed their social media accounts and location were being tracked.
Nothing to Hide
Whether they believed the U.S. government kept tabs on their activity, most people had an opinion about which aspects of their privacy they were the most comfortable giving up. We found that people were only "not very" and "somewhat" comfortable giving up their social media and TV habits.
In reality, there may be even less privacy afforded to social media. Most social media channels have been built in a way that makes tracking (and utilizing) user data relatively easy. Businesses of basically every size can use people's social media activity to curate and present targeted ads.
People were far less willing to let the government monitor their emails, location, and bank records.
Close to the Vest
Assuming you believe the government can monitor certain elements of your personal life and that it might be watching you, what steps should you take to safeguard your privacy?
More than 1 in 3 people admitted to covering up their computer webcam so that the government couldn't use it to spy on them. Unfortunately, webcam hacking has been known to happen, and there are certain steps people can take to avoid prying eyes. Covering up the camera is one option, but so is strong anti-malware software and good passwords. Another 24 percent of people opted to turn their smart devices off, and 21 percent used a VPN to obscure their IP addresses and location while browsing the web.
While 27 percent of respondents believed the U.S. government watched their social media activity, just 14 percent were willing to give up their online profiles to avoid surveillance.
At a time of intense political divide, it's fair to admit there are some fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats. While some of these differences are a bit lighthearted (one party prefers Beyoncé, the other enjoys Budweiser), others are more intense.
In fact, Republicans were more comfortable with the government conducting surveillance on certain races and ethnicities. Unlike Democrats, where just over 6 percent believed certain races should be targeted for mass surveillance, nearly 29 percent of Republicans said the same. Most notably, almost 24 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats believed the government should monitor people of Middle Eastern descent. Another 11 percent of Republicans felt the same about black or African-American citizens.
Targeted Tracking by Faith
Racial and ethnic profiling isn't completely uncommon, but it can be very dangerous. Higher levels of discrimination are often linked to more common occurrences of chronic diseases, can cause greater financial burden, and less opportunity to excel professionally. Research suggests these biases often begin at a young age and are heavily influenced by our environment.
Much like race and ethnicity, Republicans were more likely to believe the government should monitor certain religions. Compared to 12 percent of Democrats, 41 percent of Republicans supported mass surveillance based on religious affiliation. Largely, those biases were directed toward people of Islamic faith (36 percent) and Scientologists (15 percent). Despite Democrats mostly disagreeing with Republicans, nearly 1 in 10 Democrats did approve of mass surveillance targeting people of Islamic faith.
Both Democrats and Republicans agreed a person's actions warranted government tracking. While 30 percent of liberals and a bit over 22 percent of conservatives believed the U.S. government shouldn't monitor any of its citizens, more than half of people with either political affiliation did say hate groups should be watched more closely by the government. Across the country, hate group activity continues to rise, leading to both violence and illegal activity.
Thirty-nine percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans suggested families of suspected terrorists should also be subjected to government observation. However, Republicans were more likely to suggest immigrants, refugees, and foreigners (roughly 31 percent each) should be exposed to surveillance.
Opinions on Mass Surveillance
Next, we asked Democrats and Republicans to what extent government surveillance affected personal and national security.
Democrats, who strongly suggested surveillance was an infringement on their privacy and a waste of taxpayer money, were more concerned that the government abused personal information. Republicans only somewhat agreed on the matter of privacy but felt more strongly that mass surveillance helped prevent terrorist attacks and made the country safer.
Different Kind of Freedom
Social media leader Facebook, British Airways, and even the midterm elections were all targeted in a big way in 2018, and it's enough to leave people on edge. As we found, many people believe the U.S. government is responsible for similar attempts to invade their privacy whether through social media, , or location tracking.
Whether you're concerned about data breaches domestic or foreign, it's important to recognize the various ways to protect your most sensitive information. Complex passwords may seem like a burden to memorize, but they provide considerable protection for everything from your social media profile to bank accounts. You may even want to go one step further and implement a private phone number or a VPN to obscure your browser history incase a site you visit is ever compromised in one of the many digital attacks that occur each year. A little extra work to safeguard your daily online and over-the-phone activity can go a long way in preventing prying eyes from getting into your personal business!
We collected survey responses from 1,013 people. 44.6% of participants were Democrats, and 27.3% were Republicans. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 81 with a mean of 38 and a standard deviation of 12.2. There was no disqualification for our survey.
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