A recent Pew Research Study on Americans’ attitudes towards information security produced interesting findings on how Americans view cyber-security and data protection in their daily lives. A key discovery of this survey was the fact that a vast majority, over ninety percent, of Americans believe that they have lost control of the way that personal information is used by companies. Additionally, the American public generally views social media as the least secure method of communication and while they consider using a landline as the most secure, very few participants in the survey called it “very secure”. Focusing on government surveillance, over a third of Americans who are aware of surveillance programs have taken at least one step to keep their information private from the government. Additionally, a majority of Americans stated that they have lost confidence in government surveillance programs after watching news developments about these programs in recent months. More than half of those surveyed believe it is unacceptable to monitor the communication of American citizens. At our conference in San Diego, the Transatlantic Dialogue Program (TAD) explored the question ‘What is more important to you – freedom or security?’ in the larger context of data collection and information security in a world where technology plays an every increasingly larger role in everyday lives.
Our debate on this subject yielded some captivating results. First and foremost, it was determined that the balance between freedom and cyber-security is not a partisan issue – politically active professionals on both sides of the aisle were able to determine shared concerns and opinions on the point in question. However, larger differences in perspective were seen when discussing information security from a generational and geographic perspective. Younger generations tend to feel more secure sharing their information and allowing companies and the government to share and collect Metadata. Those from older generations, on the other hand, lean more towards skepticism and caution when sharing data and feeling comfortable with other entities have access to that data. On the geographic spectrum, citizens of free, democratic nations are more inclined to feel comfortable with government having access to their data. A sense of greater concern and distrust with regard to the government being able to freely access personal data seems to also be dependent on historical context. People that have historical experiences with government abuse of power and heavy government surveillance and spying often gravitate away from giving government permission to access personal data that may be online. Europeans lean towards being more private with their data than Americans, though both have concerns about information being overshared.
Generally, the views of most Americans matched the results of the Pew Research study – in particular, people tended to be more concerned with commercial privacy (i.e. bank account security or data sharing by corporations) than mass data surveillance by the government. Most also expressed unease that any information posted via social media essentially then belongs to the company it is posted through, and all agreed that there needs to be a larger conversation about how this should be regulated and what is “fair” for companies to mine and use for their benefit. Many Americans also expressed some anxiety that illegal and unconstitutional collection of data could move the country further away from traditional values of freedom founded in the Constitution.
Overall, there is widespread desire for more regulation of the way that personal data is collected and shared to help relieve some concerns that the government may begin to overstep its boundaries. A compelling argument described the core of the debate as a legal issue – one that needs to be worked into a more refined point about what government and companies can and cannot do with data. At least in some cases, this will likely require legislative action to make sure lines aren’t being crossed and too much information isn’t being shared.
A critical question raised focused on data sharing between governments and the extra challenge this poses to the question of privacy. If governments are sharing information for counterterrorism purposes, how much of this data should be shared with other nations? And how much should foreign governments be trusted with data sharing?
This conversation on privacy and freedom online led to some very valuable dialogue about the role and boundaries of government, the responsibility of individuals and companies who have access to private information, and what kind of data should or should not be shared. As cyber-security comes to the forefront of international dialogue, TAD will continue these debates to contribute to the broader policy discussion happening on both sides of the Atlantic.
Katrina Potts, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Dialogue Program, FNF