Political Affiliation Influences Our Fear of Data Collection

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Governments have collected data on citizens throughout history. This data ranges from benign data like census records and salary information to more sinister data like biometric records that can be used for law enforcement purposes. With abortion rights being under attack in the U.S. privacy specialists warn about the potential for the government use mobile phone data to target pregnant women and those seeking to abort. The FBI has made more warrantless inquiries on U.S. residents’ data collected by both the government private businesses ..

A declining share of Americans supports warrantless government surveillance. We have not effectively criticized the increasing surveillance of our personal information. We don’t have a principled view of government surveillance in general. Instead, we are starting to see viewpoints devolve into ostracization and hatred of the “other.”

Our original research suggests that Americans’ fears about government surveillance change based on who is in power and what we fear that political party may do with our data. These fears cloud the issue at hand: If we want more control over our own privacy, then we need to put our focus towards what data the government collects and what they do with that data. But, despite bipartisan support of laws limiting data collection and privacy, legislators’ efforts to stop government surveillance have floundered.

To protect our privacy, we must focus on the laws that allow data collection on Americans. These laws and programs remain constant, even when administrations change. This is because surveillance is controlled by a number of government agencies, courts, and laws. Instead of trusting in government surveillance based upon which party we are affiliated with, Americans should demand transparency into how the government is accessing their data and what they do with it.

Conventional discourse views the government as an entity without a face. Its decisions are taken away from the people who made them. We use phrases like “the government obtained warrant” or “the mandated government.” This conjures up images of large bureaucratic institutions hidden behind brutalist buildings that make decisions.

But when it comes data gathering and privacy, these people and institutions are more nuanced. To better understand how the 2020 presidential election changed how people think about government surveillance, our team of researchers at the University of Maryland and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems surveyed Americans about their privacy opinions in the summers of 2020 and 2021.

Under a Republican administration in 2020, self-reported Republicans were 9 perentage points more likely than Democrats to be okay with the government collecting data on them to prevent terrorism. At that time, Republicans were also more accepting of DNA-testing companies sharing their customers’ genetic data with law enforcement to aid in solving crimes, likely because Republicans view the police as protectors, particularly when their party is in power.

But, after the election of Joe Biden in 2020, opinions flipped. When surveyed in 2021, Republicans’ tolerance of both these forms of government surveillance grew weaker, and Democrats’ tolerance grew stronger; now, Democrats were 9 percentage points more likely than Republicans to be okay with the government collecting data on them to prevent terrorism. This suggests that Americans are more open to government collecting data about them if their politics align with the president’s. Even though the data may be used for the same purpose, this suggests that Americans are more likely to accept it.

Even controlling for other factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity and level of education, opinions flipped after the 2020 election.

Understanding what’s happening to our personal data and how to regain control of it is hard. When faced with a hard problem, we use mental shortcuts called heuristics to help us make decisions without fully understanding everything about the problem we’re facing. We rely on political trust, which is the trust of our political party, to determine what’s happening with our data when it comes to government surveillance.

Trust is the key to privacy. If I trust you, I will share or disclose information with your company. My trust in you reduces how vulnerable I feel about the fact that you know private information about me.

While we trust our political parties, decisions about what happens with our data are rarely made or disclosed by the president.

The U.S. government is notoriously secretive about the personal data it collects and how it uses it. When Edward Snowden exposed extensive phone and Internet surveillance on millions of Americans by the U.S. intelligence community in 2013, there was outrage. There was outrage because Republicans were more concerned than Democrats. This was likely due to political trust since these revelations occurred while former President Obama was in office.

Our fear of what the opposition party might do to our data is driving our opinions to change, which is absurd considering the structure of government.

We have the power to unite politically on better privacy legislation. In fact, one of the few topics on which political representatives join together is protecting their constituents’ privacy from technology companies, even if political representatives won’t limit government surveillance.

Technology companies collect customer data and use it to tailor their products, services, and advertisements. Facebook, Google and Amazon collect your browsing history, location, financial information and birthday to make it more likely that you click on their ads. Despite today’s politically polarized atmosphere, a majority of Americans agree that Congress should pass a federal privacy law as soon as possible to protect consumer data from tech companies.

We need the same advocacy for transparency regarding government surveillance as we need for surveillance by tech companies. As a sign of progress the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published April’s first disclosure of how intelligence agencies are monitoring Americans and what data they are querying. To empower Americans to make informed decisions about government surveillance and to advocate for their privacy, we need bipartisan transparency.

Surveillance, regardless of political party, is surveillance. Treating data collected by one party as benign than data collected by the other will only increase the privacy-infringing power of future and current governments. To use political trust as a heuristic for forming opinions on government surveillance is a smokescreen. It distracts from potential government overreach that could infringe on the rights of both the right and left.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Samuel Dooley is a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science at the University of Maryland.

      Angelica Goetzen is a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.

        Elissa M.

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