The latest research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in ten politically salient US states looks at Americans’ attitudes towards online privacy and surveys their trust in the tech companies that mediate nearly all of their online activities.
We find that overwhelming majorities of Americans polled—ranging from 76% in Georgia to 86% in Virginia—agree they are concerned about their online privacy. Conversely, only comparatively tiny proportions ranging from 4% in Florida and Wisconsin to 7% in Georgia and North Carolina disagree that they are concerned about their online privacy.
Concerns about respondents’ online privacy are majoritarian across all age groups in the ten states polled. Indeed, in most states, we observe little difference between the proportions of younger and older respondents expressing this view. In some states, however, the degree of concern does vary by age. In Ohio, for instance, 61% of 18-to-24-year-olds agree they are concerned about their online privacy, with 27% agreeing strongly. By contrast, as many as 93% of 55-to-64-year-olds say they agree, with 43% agreeing strongly. In certain cases, higher age may therefore be correlated to especially heightened levels of concern over online privacy.
Further, pluralities of Americans across all states polled—ranging from 35% in Georgia to 45% in Pennsylvania—disagree that they are comfortable sharing their personal data online to receive personalised services and recommendations. The proportions of respondents agreeing they are comfortable with sharing their personal data online for this purpose, conversely, is noticeably lower in most states, falling on a range between 25% in Ohio and 31% in Georgia.
In some states, we again observe differences in attitudes depending on respondents’ age. In North Carolina, for instance, 42% of 18-to-24-year-olds agree that they are comfortable with sharing their personal data online to receive personalised services and recommendations, compared to only 13% of this age group who disagree. Among 55-to-64-year-olds in this state, by contrast, only 21% agree—while 46% conversely disagree—that they are comfortable with sharing their personal data online to receive personalised services and recommendations. Again, higher age thus appears correlated to higher degrees of concern in some cases.
More generally, Americans’ concerns over their online privacy and the personal information they provide online may be linked to their relatively low levels of trust in the big technology companies which mediate nearly all of their online activities—be it via providing the devices, the software, or the specific services with which users interact.
When asked which tech companies they trust, Google fares best across all states polled, with pluralities or majorities that vary from 47% in California to 58% in Georgia saying they trust Google. Amazon comes in second place, followed by Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung. Less than a quarter of Americans across all states polled say they trust Facebook and Sony.
Likely due to the ongoing debates over whether the Chinese telecommunications equipment firm poses a national security threat to the US, Huawei is by far the least trusted technology company among those on which we polled, with only marginal proportions ranging from 2% in Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia to 5% in Georgia expressing their trust.
Notably, however, when respondents are asked to indicate which tech companies they distrust, Facebook is far ahead of Huawei. Whereas pluralities or majorities ranging from 45% in Georgia and Wisconsin to 55% in Arizona and Ohio say they distrust Facebook, significant but noticeably lower proportions of between 20% in Wisconsin and 29% in Florida say they distrust Huawei. Though these figures may in part be a result of lower public awareness of Huawei, they indicate that respondents are much more distrustful of the American company Facebook, which could relate to unease about data leaks or the role the platform may play in spreading disinformation, for instance.
Looking at the specific example of technology giant Apple—which proportions ranging from 28% in Arizona to 44% in Georgia trust and proportions ranging from 21% in Pennsylvania to 33% in Arizona distrust—we find that Americans greet new technological features that have implications for their personal data with some scepticism.
When respondents are informed that Apple has recently announced it would introduce a new tool that can scan private photos on all Apple devices in search of content related to specific criminal activities such as child abuse, the publics in the states polled differ in their views on this tool. In Arizona, for instance, 28% support and 41% oppose its introduction. In North Carolina, by contrast, public opinion is significantly more evenly split, with 32% of respondents expressing their support and 33% expressing their opposition.
California is the only state among those polled where a plurality (34%)—albeit a narrow one—approves of the introduction of Apple’s new tool, compared to 31% who oppose it. In all other states, opposition outweighs approval, though by differing margins.
In part, splits in public opinion regarding the introduction of Apple’s new detection tool may be linked to varying levels of scepticism regarding how the company will make use of the access to user data it will gain from the tool. Indeed, we find that there is no consensus on this matter among respondents across the ten states polled. Whereas pluralities in Florida (41%), North Carolina (42%), Ohio (41%), Pennsylvania (42%), Texas (45%), and Wisconsin (45%), as well as a majority in Arizona (52%), say they do not trust Apple to use this tool only for its stated purpose of preventing the exploitation of children, pluralities in California (40%), Georgia (39%), and Virginia (40%) say they do trust Apple to only use this tool for its stated purpose.
Distrust appears particularly heightened among 2020 Donald Trump voters, who are noticeably more likely than 2020 Joe Biden voters to say they do not trust Apple to use this tool only for its stated purpose of preventing the exploitation of children in all ten states polled.
That notable proportions ranging from 19% in Florida to 24% in California also say they don’t know whether they trust Apple in this regard or not further highlights a certain degree of scepticism regarding the integrity of Apple’s—and perhaps by extension other big tech firms’— data handling and business practices.
Not least in response to feedback from customers and advocacy groups that voiced these concerns, Apple recently announced it would delay the rollout of its new detection feature “to collect input and make improvements.” Our overall results that highlight widespread concerns over online privacy suggest that this delay and a potential overhaul of the tool’s functioning will be welcomed by significant proportions of Americans.