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Survey: Americans uncomfortable with new surveillance technologies

Larry Ponemon | April 26 2006

Perhaps you were chosen for additional airport screening while rushing to catch a flight. Or you noticed a video camera watching your every move the last time you entered a bank, shopping mall or department store. Responses vary when people are confronted with actions aimed at improving security or service, which may also affect their privacy. We recently conducted a survey seeking opinions about several different surveillance methods:

Government monitoring of e-mail and Internet usage

Employer monitoring of e-mail and Internet use

Video cameras in public restrooms

Passenger screening at airports

One-way mirrors or video cameras in store dressing rooms

Hidden traffic cameras

Spyware on PCs

Government wiretaps of phone calls

Companies recording customer-service phone conversations

Electronic radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in products

Implanted chips to verify identity
Overall, our findings suggest that Americans have mixed feelings about being watched and tracked. Of most concern:

About 90% of respondents said "no" to or that they were "unsure" about the use of telephone wiretaps by government.

More than 85% said "no" or "unsure" about software on their PCs that monitors Internet browsing or shopping behavior.

More than 70% said "no" or "unsure" to the use of RFID in products that could be used to track identity from short distances.

Almost all respondents disliked the idea of the government implanting chips in people for identity verification.
Practices of least concern:

Two-thirds do not appear to mind having their telephone conversations recorded when contacting customer service representatives.

About 57% are willing to accept employers monitoring e-mail and Internet activities in the workplace.

More than 57% of respondents do not seem to mind if the police department uses hidden cameras to monitor traffic or speeding.

Over half of respondents don't mind being chosen for additional passenger screening at an airport.

About 49% don't worry about retailers using one-way mirrors or video cameras in store dressing rooms.

More than 31% of respondents are "unsure" about the use of video cameras in public restrooms for preventing illegal or dangerous acts. About 29% are not concerned.
A total of 889 people across all regions of the U.S. participated in our survey, which represents an 11% response rate. The margin of error is 2%.

The most negatively viewed surveillance method concerns implanting an electronic chip to track identity. Also, more than half of respondents perceive spyware, the U.S. government's use of wiretaps and the widespread deployment of RFID tags that could track people as unacceptable modes of surveillance.

In general, government-initiated surveillance is viewed more negatively than that conducted by businesses. In addition, surveillance methods that rely on emerging technologies such as implantable chips, spyware and RFID tags are perceived as more invasive than lower-tech surveillance methods such as video cameras or one-way mirrors.

Our findings also suggest that gender and other demographic variables may influence someone's views about surveillance methods. For instance, women in our study appear to hold more negative perceptions about surveillance than men. Accordingly, 50% of women tended to have negative impressions across all survey scenarios as compared to 44% of men.

In addition, people with advanced educational degrees tend to hold more negative perceptions about surveillance methods. Both younger (18 to 25 years) and older respondents (over 65 years) appear hold more negative perceptions about surveillance than individuals in the ages between those two groups.

What factors do respondents consider important to their opinions about surveillance? We asked people to rate four:

Controls over the watcher: 80% of respondents believe it is important or very important to have controls over those charged with watching the public.

Anonymity: 76% of respondents believe that anonymity is important or very important. Hence, surveillance methods should not capture or keep any personally identifiable information.

Notice: 71% of respondents believe it is necessary for organizations that deploy surveillance to provide some form of notice in advance of its use (with clear exception for antiterrorist spying activities).

Legal protection: 70% of individuals believe it is necessary to have legal recourse against organizations that abuse or misuse surveillance.
While surveillance has become a way of life for many Americans in the post-9/11 world, many of us still hold negative feelings or concerns about certain methods. Our findings suggest that it is important for government and business organizations to understand the public's perceptions before deploying new security methods and technologies.





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