Ashley Sogla says she doesn’t understand how people can be so offended by the government storing personal information when they were the ones who put it out on the web in the first place. “It isn’t all that shocking,” says Sogla, a millennial and student at the University of Minnesota.
The shift to a looser standard in privacy has moved into the business world, too. With Apple’s release of the new iPhone 5s, which enables users to secure their smartphones with fingerprint identification, there’s a shift in how we think about privacy and access to our personal information. Even as we’re securing our emails, contacts, and web access from the people immediately around us, we’re giving crucial information about our identities to Apple.
Privacy: A Balancing Act
The Snowden exposé, which unveiled the techniques used by the National Security Administration to keep tabs on Americans’ communication information, has called into question how much we’re willing to tolerate before the personal becomes political.
So how do millennials, the generation that is coming of age when smartphones are standard and social media is an ever-growing enterprise, view this intrusion? The answers may be a little surprising.
Only 48 percent of all Americans (and 58 percent of millennials) say they have any trust in how the federal government handles their personal information. This attitude is fairly stable across all generations, according to a June 2013 poll by Harris Interactive that surveyed 2,091 American adults about their attitudes toward outside use of personal data like contact and credit card information.
Regarding both the government’s and corporations’ use of personal information, there is an agreement among Americans that some kind of a balance needs to be struck. “It’s an invasion of privacy, but it’s a necessary invasion,” says Matt Kiefer, a millennial and student at the University of Minnesota. “To think that the government wasn’t doing this—it’s ignorance.”
Survey results from a 2013 Allstate-National Herald Monitor poll confirm this sentiment, showing that 55 percent of respondents fear that the use of their personal information infringes on their privacy and personal liberties. Even so, 38 percent say there is a definite positive consequence of institutions using their personal data. Respondents cited improved businesses that better serve customers and enhanced public safety as the chief positives to come out of information sharing.
An Expectation of Intrusion
As many as 90 percent of Americans say they have less privacy than previous generations, and a staggering 93 percent say they believe this trend will continue into the next generation, according to the Allstate-National Heartland Monitor survey.
Sogla, who says she expects some amount of spying by both the government and businesses, explains that when she shares information about herself online, she knows that what is “private” may not necessarily be private in actuality.
Many young people—like those of the millennial generation—have an ambivalent attitude toward companies storing and using their personal information. “We come in contact with it more often,” Kiefer says, referring to businesses online and websites that track user behavior in order to customize web content. “It’s everyday life.”
Madeline Staats, another millennial at the University of Minnesota, agrees. She says that customized content is “a good marketing strategy,” before adding, “It’s weird, but it doesn’t bother me.”
The Strange Case of Social Networking
Even as the government received a bad rap in Harris Interactive’s poll, it was social networking sites that fared the poorest, with only 28 percent of respondents indicating any level of trust in the sites’ ability to handle users’ personal information. Only 5 percent of people said they had a “great deal” of trust in social media, as opposed to a more definite 40 percent saying they had absolutely no trust in these sites.
There were, however, clear generational differences here. As many as 42 percent of millennials placed trust in social networking sites, compared to only 14 percent of people aged 55 and older. In fact, trust in social networking sites steadily diminished with each age group.
“It’s more ingrained,” says Claire Vos, 21, referring to social media use. “It’s a way we connect. Everyone uses it—our peers around us use it more.”
Even if online transactions and social media are “ingrained” for the millennial generation, a level of distrust does crop up.
“Information about yourself can leak out in ways you don’t expect,” says Gennie Alberti, a millennial who says she keeps access to her Facebook page restricted to friends. Like many others, she says that she expects information leaks—whether by social media, companies, or others—but that she’s not “paranoid.”
“I can find blogs from people who probably think they’re hiding it well,” she says. “If I want to keep something private, I try to keep this in mind.”
Gennie Alberti and her mother, Theresa, a baby boomer, hold some of the same views on the issue of privacy vis-à-vis social networking sites, though Theresa admits to being perhaps a little more cautious than her daughter about what she shares online.
Theresa’s husband works in Internet security, and she says this helped shape her views just as the Internet was coming into existence.
“Nothing is very secure. I just try to be cautious in my own way,” she says, explaining that she refrains from posting anything that might be seen as “inflammatory.” In addition, she says that she and her husband remain unlisted in the phone book.
There is a disconnect between restricted access and dissemination when it comes to our personal information. Even as wanton use of Apple’s fingerprint security mechanism for the new iPhone seems emblematic of changing attitudes about how much information we’re willing to give out and to whom, people—even millennials—are still cautious about what they share online and how much they trust certain institutions to handle their data. Maybe this is demonstrative of a generational brink that will yield to a clearer divide in the next generations.