Online privacy is a growing concern for Americans. Whether it is congress’ decision to revoke FCC Privacy Protections or Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, online privacy has forced its way into public discourse.

To really get an insight into public sentiment on the state of online privacy we decided to run a survey which asked the following questions:

  • How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Gmail?
  • How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Facebook?
  • How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Snapchat?
  • How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Twitter ?
  • How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Instagram?
  • Which technology company do you MOST trust to keep your information private?

Our data – collected using Google Surveys – threw up some interesting results:

  • 77% of Facebook users surveyed have little or no confidence that their data will remain private on Facebook.
  • Of the leading tech firms, Google is most trusted to keep personal information private.
  • 79% of Snapchat users surveyed have little or no confidence that the company will keep their personal data private.

Click here to skip ahead to our data visualization, or read on as we delve into our findings in more detail.

1. How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Gmail?

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We asked our respondents how confident they were data private data would remain private on Gmail.

  • 12.2% were very confident in Gmail’s handling of private data.
  • 29.6% were somewhat confident in Gmail’s handling of private data.
  • 19.9% were not too confident in Gmail’s handling of private data.
  • 12.6% were not at all confident in Gmail’s handling of private data.
  • 25.9% did not use Gmail.

Taking the non-Gmail users out of the equation we can see that 56% of Gmail users are either “somewhat confident” or “very confident” that private data will remain private data on Gmail. While 56% might not necessarily seem like a ringing endorsement for user trust, it does place Gmail comfortably out in front of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter in terms of consumer trust.

The confidence our respondents expressed in Gmail’s ability to protect private data compares favorably to the lack of confidence in other sectors highlighted in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center which found that:

  • Only 6% of people were “very confident” that government agencies can keep their private data secure, while 25% answered “somewhat confident”.
  • Only 6% of people were “very confident” that landline telephone companies can keep their private data secure, while 25% answered “somewhat confident”.
  • Credit card companies scored slightly higher with 9% saying they were “very confident” and 29% saying they were “somewhat confident” that their private data would remain secure with credit card companies.
  • Email service providers scored quite negatively with only 3% saying they were “very confident” while 26% were somewhat confident that their personal data would remain private.

A 2014 survey by HBR showed that 97% of people surveyed were concerned that governments and businesses might misuse their data. Both studies reveal a widespread mistrust of the way companies and government use personal data. Taken in this context, the level of trust our respondents have in Gmail is certainly above average.

Whether or not this relative trust is misplaced is another matter. Google has been involved in a number of privacy controversies relating to their Gmail service. In a 2013 court case, the company stated that Gmail users have no “reasonable expectation” that their communications are private. A year later, an invalid digital security certificate the private data of a majority of users exposed, while the company’s terms and services explicitly state that user emails – both incoming and outgoing – are scanned to create targeted ads. In 2016 Google had to change the way they collected advertising specific data from incoming emails to avoid a lawsuit.

All in all there has been a fair degree of controversy surrounding Gmail privacy and that is before you even consider what Google does with your search queries. Despite the various issues caused by Google’s approach to user privacy, our data shows that in terms of private data handling trust in Gmail, while not emphatic, is significantly higher than trust in government services, credit card companies, and leading social platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.

2. How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Facebook?

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We asked our respondents how confident they were that their private data will remain private on Facebook. The results were:

  • 3.4% stated they were “very confident”.
  • 14.8% stated they were “somewhat confident”.
  • 29.2% stated they were “not too confident”.
  • 32.2% stated they were “not at all confident”.
  • 20.3% don’t use Facebook.

When you take the 20.3% of respondents who don’t use Facebook out of our results, the lack of confidence in Facebook’s handling of private data is quite damning. 77% of the Facebook users we surveyed answered that they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that their personal data will remain private on Facebook. The fact that only 23% of users have any confidence in Facebook’s ability to keep their data private might well have something to do with the company’s questionable stance on user privacy.

To begin with, deleting a Facebook account is probably more challenging than it needs to be – that is just the tip of the iceberg however. The company scored a privacy own goal with the Facebook Beacon back in 2007 which tracked user’s activities on some third party sites even when they were logged out of Facebook. Companies like Travelocity and Fandango could then automatically post on a user’s feeds that they had completed a purchase. This intrusion upset users and Beacon was eventually shelved –  costing Facebook $9.5 million to settle a lawsuit from users who felt their privacy had been violated.

In 2011 Facebook found itself in legal trouble once more with the Sponsored Stories fiasco. Sponsored Stories allowed companies to use likes from Facebook users in their ads. While the Sponsored Stories were shown to be 46% more effective than other ads, there was one issue however – Facebook did not let users know that they could to be used in ads across the platform if they liked a particular product. Unsurprisingly, people – like the man who featured in an ad for lubricant – soon grew disgruntled. Facebook had to scrap Sponsored Stories and ended up paying out a $20 million settlement.

Also in 2011 information security company Symantec identified that Facebook applications were inadvertently leaking access tokens to third parties like advertisers and analytics companies. Later in the year, Facebook found themselves in trouble with the European regulators when they launched a facial recognition feature. By collecting biometric data without user consent Facebook was in violating EU law resulting in the withdrawal of the facial recognition feature in the region. To put the icing on the cake, Facebook also began sharing user’s home addresses with developers around that time.

With so much public controversy around the way Facebook handles user data it is perhaps a surprise that as many as 23% of Facebook users we surveyed still trust the company to handle their personal data. With such a low level of user trust, it is perhaps just as well that privacy – according to Mark Zuckerberg – is no longer a “social norm”.

3. How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Snapchat?

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We asked our respondents how confident they were that their private data would remain private on Snapchat. The results were:

  • 2.7% were “very confident”.
  • 8.5% were “somewhat confident”.
  • 24% were “not too confident”.
  • 17% were “not at all confident”.
  • 47.9% don’t use Snapchat.

Again, taking the non-users out of the equation we can see that trust in Snapchat is pretty low. Only 21% of Snapchat users surveyed are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” that private data will remain private on Snapchat. The remaining 79% have little or no confidence in Snapchat’s handling of their private data.

The level of trust in Snapchat is even lower than Facebook which seems like quite an achievement until you consider their own checkered history with user privacy. In 2014, the usernames and phone numbers of 4.6 million Snapchat users were leaked online. Then in 2015, the company received some backlash when they released a new privacy policy which gave them the right to reproduce, modify, and republish user photos – which goes against the very basis of the temporary photo sharing app. The following year the company fell victim to a phishing scam and were tricked into releasing employee payroll information.

When you consider that Snapchat fell victim to a major security breach back in 2014 alongside their questionable privacy policy then perhaps it is not that surprising that user trust is so low.

4. How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Twitter?

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We asked our respondents how confident they were that their private data will remain private on Twitter. The results were as follows:

  • 3% answered “very confident”.
  • 9.9% answered “somewhat confident”.
  • 21.5% answered “not too confident”.
  • 18.5% answered “not at all confident”.
  • 47.2% did not use Twitter.

When you remove non-users from our data, you can see that only 24% of Twitter users feel “very confident” or, at least, “somewhat confident” that Twitter would keep their data private. This level of trust is quite low and places the company only slightly above Snapchat and Facebook.

The low level of trust in Twitter demonstrated in our survey might be somewhat unfortunate when you consider that the company has a much better privacy record than either Facebook or Snapchat. That is not to say that Twitter has an unblemished privacy record. In 2013, it became clear that Twitter’s geo-tagging functionality was revealing user location for one in every five tweets posted. A year later, there was some privacy concern expressed when the company announced that all historic tweets were made searchable with some users worried about embarrassing posts from the past being resurfaced.

5. How confident are you that data you expect to be private will remain private on Instagram?

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We asked our respondents how confident they were that their private data would remain private on Instagram. The results were as follows.

  • 2.9% answered “very confident”.
  • 11% answered “somewhat confident”.
  • 22.5% answered “not too confident”.
  • 16.4% answered “not at all confident”.
  • 47.2% did not use Instagram.

Of the Instagram users surveyed, 26% answered that they were “very confident” or at least “somewhat confident” that the company would keep their personal data private. In terms of user trust over private data protection, this figure puts them ahead of our respondents trust in Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. However, the fact that the platform is owned by Facebook whose attitude to user privacy is fairly lax means that this relative confidence might be misplaced.

For the most part, the platform has avoided the privacy controversies associated with its parent company. Earlier this year, however, a UK-based lawyer rewrote Instagram’s terms of service in child-friendly language which included some worrying phrases like “officially you own any original pictures and videos you post, but we are allowed to use them, and we can let others use them as well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that” and “we can force you to give up your username for any reason.”

6. Which technology company do you MOST trust to keep your information private?

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The final question in our survey centered on which of the major tech players they trusted the most with their private data. The answers were:

  • Google 28.7%
  • Apple 26.2%
  • Microsoft 19.8%
  • Amazon 18.1%
  • Facebook 4.5%
  • Snapchat 1.9%
  • Twitter 0.8%

The more established tech companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon are comfortably out in front of the more recently established Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. A study by the Marketing Executives Networking Group found that the more established players in the space were also the most trusted by millennials with Amazon placing first ahead of Google and then Apple.

While Google is the most trusted tech company among our respondents, our overall data shows that there is a general sense of mistrust in the way that companies handle private data.

History of Online Privacy

Leading technology companies have received plenty of criticism over the years for their privacy failures. In their defense, online privacy is a relatively new area and Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and others are going into unchartered waters.

One of the first forays into the realm of online privacy was by the Electronic Privacy Information Center which began a newsletter in 1994 that covered both user privacy and civil liberties issues. At the time however – long before the days of ubiquitous internet – online privacy was a very niche topic for both users and online service providers.

The next development in internet privacy was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule enacted in 1998 which addressed the issue of child safety on the internet. Web 2.0 came into being in the early 2000s and brought with it an explosion in online economic and social activity which created a whole range of privacy concerns. Communities, social networks, wikis, and video-sharing sites turned the internet into a place where people shared and consumed personal information about themselves and others. The first legislation to deal with these new privacy concerns was the California Online Privacy Protection Act 2003 (CalOPPA) which required website operators to link to a privacy policy on their site that is clearly visible.

From 2010 onwards consumer concern over online privacy has risen sharply. A major contributing factor here was certainly the revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about the true extent of the personal data collection undertaken by the NSA. With more focus on data privacy in the media than ever before, consumers wanted to know how to protect their online data. In 2013, Assembly Bill #370 gave consumers greater choice regarding the collection of their private data.

One of the biggest developments in online privacy in recent years was an EU court ruling against Google in 2014 which granted people the “right to be forgotten”. People can now request old web pages to be removed from Google’s search results. While some have argued that this ruling is a step in the right direction, others have pinpointed a number of ethical issues associated with the ruling. With little transparency about who does and who doesn’t have the right to be forgotten coupled with an ongoing question about whether the ruling should be extended beyond EU borders, it seems this issue has not yet been completely settled.

The Biggest Threats to Online Privacy

Maintaining your online privacy is no easy feat in 2017. We live in a world where government spying, cyber attacks, and cookie-based advertising have become the norm. Concerns around online privacy have grown to the point that 80% of social network users are concerned about third party advertisers and businesses accessing their data while 70% are concerned about the government accessing their private information.

The trouble here is, the online activities of consumers today do not match up with expressed concerns. The Association for Computer Machinery have done some research into this “privacy paradox” and found that the online shoppers they studied failed to live up to their self-reported privacy concerns and disclosed their personal information to an anthropomorphic 3-D shopping bot. Consumer behavior in which personal information is needlessly shared online is, in many ways, one of the biggest threats to online privacy.

Other, more obvious threats to online privacy include cybersecurity issues like malware, phishing scams, and ransomware. As the internet of things continues to expand connecting products across the home and beyond it also opens up a range of new security concerns. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be over 50 billion connected devices, considerably expanding the threat landscape. Private data could potentially be more exposed than ever to both malicious attackers and unscrupulous corporations. Online privacy is entering into a significant phase and both consumers and businesses must solve a number of challenges in order to protect their data in future.

Conclusion

As we enter into a crucial period in the history of online privacy, consumer confidence in our leading tech firms is at a very low level. While trust in the more established tech giants like Google was relatively steady, our respondents were less than enamored with the way social networks handle private data. For Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter the message from our respondents is clear – it is time to start taking user privacy seriously.

Who Do You Trust? How Consumers Feel About Online Privacy

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