GETTING PRAGMATIC ABOUT PRIVACY

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No one enjoys picking up the phone in the middle of dinner only to hear the monotone spiel of a solicitor hawking a long-distance service or a new credit card. Later this summer, Americans will be able to block their phone numbers from those annoying telemarketing calls, when the much-anticipated national do not call list is finally made available. And it's a good bet that lots of people will take advantage of the new service, considering how many of us are fed up with the invasion of privacy. In fact, almost two-thirds of adults today (62 percent) agree that not being disturbed at home is extremely important, compared with 49 percent who said so back in 1994, according to a study conducted in February by Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive. What's more, the share of people who say they are unconcerned about protecting their privacy has shrunk to just 10 percent, from 22 percent in 1994.

Even so, the nationally representative telephone survey of 1,010 Americans does find that people are more likely to feel that they have better control over the release of their personal information today than they did in years past. Sixty-nine percent of adults agree that consumers have lost all control over how personal information is collected and used by companies, compared with 80 percent who agreed with the statement just four years ago. At the same time, privacy concerns have waned significantly at the workplace. Those who agree that not being monitored at work is extremely important fell to 42 percent, from 65 percent in 1994, which could be an indication that people are aware of how commonplace the monitoring of employee Internet usage has become, and that they may be getting used to it.

In light of lingering concerns over terrorism, Americans are also struggling to reconcile their personal desire for privacy with an increased acceptance of government intrusion. But just how much personal information we are willing to divulge in the name of national security does vary by demographic group. Support for government interception of cell phone and e-mail communication, for instance, increases with age. Only 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are in favor of expanded communication monitoring, while 54 percent of those over 65 support the idea.

Another proposed tool to prevent terrorism, national ID cards, has sparked government debate. Americans are still divided on the issue: Though 71 percent of Northeasterners and Southerners favor the use of ID cards, only 53 percent of Midwesterners and 59 percent of Westerners do. This makes sense, since the Northeast and the South were most directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Of all demographic groups, however, African Americans are the most wary of all types of invasion of privacy, the survey reveals. In fact, while 78 percent of whites and 83 percent of Hispanics say they are confident U.S. law enforcement will use its expanded terrorism surveillance powers in a proper way, only 47 percent of black respondents agree. Blacks also diverge from other groups when asked if they think existing laws and organizational practices provide a reasonable level of protection for consumer privacy. Only 35 percent of blacks agree, versus 46 percent of whites and 48 percent of Hispanics.

As Americans become more accustomed to an uncertain world, these numbers will probably shift. According to Alan Westin, who consulted with Harris Interactive on the study and is president of industry group Privacy and American Business, based in Hackensack, N.J., methods to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks are eroding privacy standards. Says Westin: How the public will react to proposals for in-depth government monitoring of consumer transactions and communications in the search for terrorists will be increasingly the focus of privacy debates in this decade.


For more information, contact Nancy Wong at Harris Interactive at (800) 866-7655 or at nwong@harrisinteractive.com.

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