Snowden leaks erode trust in Internet companies, government

Users are scaling back Internet use out of fears of govt. surveillance, Harris survey finds

Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) data collection practices have eroded the public's trust in major technology companies -- and in the Internet, a Harris Interactive survey found.

Harris polled over 2,000 U.S. adults for their opinions on surveillance, data gathering, Internet privacy and trust in a post-Snowden era.

About 85% of those polled were at least somewhat familiar with Snowden's leaks about government surveillance and some 80% wanted Congress to implement new laws for curbing the NSA.

Despite that, over half believed that mass surveillance helps prevent terrorism and an almost equal number felt that Internet companies should cooperate with the government's efforts in this regard.

Somewhat paradoxically though, two out of three survey respondents also felt betrayed because ISPs and other online companies are working secretly with the government to collect and monitor the communications of private citizens. About 60% are less trusting of ISPs and other technology companies than before the revelations.

The results reflect mixed emotions among Internet users said Stephen Cobb, a senior security researcher at security vendor Eset, which commissioned the Harris Interactive survey.

"People clearly are thinking more about the relationship between privacy and security. What the Snowden revelations have done is to surface the unresolved tension over this issue," he said. "People would like, on the one hand, to think the surveillance is necessary. But there is push back against unnecessary surveillance."

There is little doubt that Snowden's revelations about major Internet companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo secretly handing over customer data to intelligence agencies have shaken consumer confidence. "The feeling of betrayal is considerable and understandable," Cobb said.

One result is that people appear to be scaling back their Internet use. Nearly half of the respondents have become more cautious about what they say, where they go and what they do on the Internet. About 25% are less inclined to use email these days because of the same reason.

Though the survey sample is relatively modest, the results are significant, Cobb said.

Businesses would do well to pay attention to the results, he said. "I don't know if banks or online retailers are noticing the same thing," he said.

Reason.com, an online publication of the Reason Foundation, a non-profit research and educational organization, uncovered a similar distrust for major online companies in a similar poll conducted in March.

Of 1,000 U.S adults asked who they trusted the most with their personal information, 35% picked the Internal Revenue Service, while 18% chose the NSA. Just 10% of poll respondents said they trusted Google with their personal data while about 5% picked Facebook.

Startling as the numbers might appear at first glance, they are actually not very surprising when viewed in a broader context, said Emily Ekins, polling director for Reason.com.

When the same respondents were asked whom they feared would violate their privacy the most, about 36% picked the NSA, and 18% the IRS. About 26% picked Facebook.

The numbers suggest that Internet users are generally mistrustful of large Internet companies. It is unclear to what extent specifically the Snowden revelations have contributed to or exacerbated the mistrust, she said. "But it is absolutely a part of this," she said.

For the most part Internet users appear resigned to the fact that they need to give up some personal information in return for a free service. There is an expectation that companies like Facebook and Google collect and sell personal data. Internet users appear to be accepting that reality, Ekins said.

Respondents, though, said they oppose government data collection and surveillance, she added. "It just goes against the grain. People realize that there is a difference between collecting data with the intent of selling it versus using it for spying. People realize there is an inherent difference in how the data is used."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

Tags SXSWsecuritynsaesetgovernmentGovernment/IndustriesprivacyHarris Interactive

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