Trading Privacy for Safety

Trading Privacy for Safety

Written By: Team | Updated: June 31, 2021

Feeling lonely? These days, all it takes is a walk down the street if you want some degree of company. The only catch: There might be a lens separating you from those who can see you.

Currently, an astounding 50 million closed-circuit TV cameras located across the United States are keeping a close eye on its over 327 million citizens. And while China's count is astronomically higher in comparison, there are actually more cameras per capita in the U.S. – 15.28 versus China's 14.36.

In the face of terrorism and mass shootings, a majority of people feel generally unsafe as they move through society: A recent Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans were either “very” or “somewhat” worried about themselves or a family member being a victim of a mass shooting. For some, this has led to a higher tolerance for surveillance in the name of maintaining order and suppressing crime.

We surveyed over 1,000 Americans regarding their views on being watched by the powers that be, gauging their appetites for exchanging certain freedoms for protection, and exploring where they feel they need surveillance most.

America Through the Looking Glass

Perceptions of surveillance

For the majority of Americans, 50 million closed-circuit TV cameras still aren't enough: 53% believed there should be even more surveillance than there is currently. Just 18% thought there should be less, and 29% felt it should stay about the same. Republicans and Gen Zers were particularly on board with the idea of ramping up surveillance in our daily lives. However, there were certain exceptions: 45% of Americans were uncomfortable being monitored by private companies, and 42% were uncomfortable being monitored by the government.

But mass surveillance is not without its negative effects. While one of its primary objectives is to create a safer society, some actually argue that taking in so much information can bury crime-busting details under a pile of useless chatter.

For our respondents, surveillance was most likely to erode people's trust in the government (a sentiment shared by 54% of Democrats) and leave people feeling violated (a sentiment shared by 38% of Republicans). There was some overlap between these two factions: Democrats were also concerned about freedom of expression (53%), feeling violated (53%), and data vulnerability (47%), while Republicans had trust in the government (37%) and data vulnerability (36%) on their mind.

In a more hopeful vein, over half of respondents felt surveillance had a positive effect on dark web crime rates. The dark web is a segment of the internet that requires specific software or configurations to access; while not everything that happens there is “bad” or illegal, it is known to be a hub for many illicit exchanges and activities.

Nothing to Hide?

Sacrificing Privacy for the sake of US Safety

How much of your privacy would you trade for a safer society? Based on our respondents' answers, Americans were most at ease giving up certain liberties in the name of airplane safety. Many also said they would do the same if it helped detect potential terrorist activity. In fact, a 2018 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 73% of Americans named terrorism as their top policy priority – higher than any other option on the list.

When it came to blurring the lines of privacy, respondents were very much on board with the TSA searching carry-on bags if it could help prevent concealed weapons from making their way onto a plane: 95% said they would be in favor of this measure, and 72% would give up their own privacy to facilitate it. A majority (93%) were also in favor of body scans to accomplish the same goal, and 62% would accept giving up some of their privacy in return.

There has, however, been a fair amount of skepticism regarding the safety of TSA full-body scanners and questions raised about the radiation they emit. People have also expressed concerns about the fact that we don't currently know if these machines lead to any long-term health effects.

On the terrorism prevention side of things, respondents were most at ease with facial recognition technology being used at all times (87%). Another 65% were open to giving up their personal privacy in this context. Other options – like phone record sharing, social media monitoring, and credit card purchase monitoring – garnered a large majority of people's trust as well. Government-required dashboard cameras to aid law enforcement in catching criminals, on the other hand, were far less popular, with just 55% in approval.

The biggest differences between respondents of varied political affiliations were that 63% of Democrats were comfortable with facial recognition in airports, compared to 78% of Republicans. Another 46% of left-leaning respondents were comfortable with the FBI having access to social media information, compared to 60% of those on the right. Overall, Republicans were more comfortable with giving up their privacy for each of the scenarios we explored.

Safety First

Where do Americans want to feel safer?

They say home is where the heart is, and for our respondents, it was also a kind of haven: 87% said they felt safe inside their homes, and just under half said they thought the level of surveillance they experienced at home should remain the same. Fifteen percent said they wanted more, while 36% desired less. The latter group might be skeptical about a handful of everyday items that could be snooping on our private lives, like laptops, cellphones, and smart home devices, such as voice-activated assistants.

The majority of people also felt safe at the airport (76%) and at the bank (71%), but numbers started to taper off with stores (59%), schools (56%), and concerts (46%). From the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival to the tragedy at Paris's Bataclan venue in 2015, to name a couple, it's no surprise that 60% of respondents wanted more surveillance during concerts – more than any other location.

Following a surge in religiously motivated hate crimes, including the Christchurch mosque shooting and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, surveillance at places of worship is a topic on everyone's lips. Mosques across America, for example, are ramping up security measures, including installing new cameras and handing out cans of pepper spray. Synagogues are also implementing security protocols to protect their congregations better.

SOS: Save Our Schools

Sacrificing student privacy for school safety

Over the past couple of decades, the U.S. has been plagued with a spate of school shootings, from elementary schools to universities. A majority of parents (58%) were comfortable with schools monitoring the internet activity of students 18 and younger if it meant such surveillance could help prevent future mass casualty events at school. Another 35% felt this measure was appropriate only in some circumstances, and just 6% said schools should never intervene in this way.

Of course, for respondents who were on board with internet usage surveillance, nothing in life is free: Nearly three-quarters said they would be willing to give up some of their child's privacy to support the cause. Programs that use AI technology to keep tabs on students' browsing habits are currently being rolled out across the country, using software such as Gaggle, Securly, and GoGuardian. Whether this type of monitoring actually helps prevent gun violence remains to be seen.

Most parents (93%) said schools should monitor phrases related to school shootings, and 86% believed they should be on the lookout for cyberbullying and suicide-related terms. Another 45% said students should be searched on their way to class to protect schools.

Surveillance is a fact of modern life

According to our survey, Americans are quite comfortable with the idea of surveillance as part of their daily lives. Many were in favor of increased monitoring in places like airports to help prevent terrorism, and many more thought there should be even more surveillance at schools, concerts, and on the street – places where respondents felt less safe overall.

One place where the majority of respondents were in favor of surveillance was in schools. Most people were okay with giving up some of their children's privacy in exchange for internet usage monitoring, and nearly two-thirds said there should be more surveillance at school in general. With more and more internet monitoring programs being rolled out by academic institutions, only time will tell whether this will be enough to curb school-related violence.

Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 1,006 Americans about their attitudes toward personal privacy, surveillance, and safety in the contexts of preventing terrorism, school shootings, and catching criminals. For respondents to be included in our data, they were required to complete the entire survey and pass an attention-check question halfway through the survey. Participants who failed to do either of these were excluded from the study.

Of all respondents, 52% were women, and 48% were men. Thirty-four percent of respondents were millennials (born 1981 to 1997); 31% were from Generation X (born 1965 to 1980); 18% were baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964); and 17% were from Generation Z (born 1998 to 2017). The silent generation (born 1928 to 1945) and the greatest generation (born 1927 or earlier) were excluded from the study due to insufficient sample sizes. The average age of respondents was 37, with a standard deviation of 13 years. The data had a 5% margin of error for millennials; a 6% margin of error for Generation X; a 7% margin of error for baby boomers; and an 8% margin of error for Generation Z.

In the second visualization, “yes” included a grouping of respondents who answered, “yes, always” and “yes, some circumstances” to questions on if these actions should be carried out.

The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. In finding averages of quantitative values, we removed outliers, so the data were not exaggerated.

Fair Use Statement

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