Will online privacy problems be solved by 2025? Experts respond in Pew study

We are living in an unprecedented age of surveillance, experts told the Pew Research Center.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

As the boundaries between privacy and public information blur, policymakers and technology innovators will struggle to respond, according to a Pew Research Center study on the future of privacy released Thursday.

A survey of experts responded with a split opinion on whether politicians and the tech industry could create a “secure, popularly accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025 that allows for business innovation and monetization” while offering people accessible options for protecting their personal information.

About 55% of the 2,511 respondents said they did not believe an accepted privacy-rights infrastructure would exist in the next decade, while 45% said it would. But regardless of their thoughts on the future of privacy, many agreed that online life is public by nature.


“Almost everybody agrees this new environment is coming,” said Lee Rainie, co-author of the study. “About half say we will make accommodations and about half say it’s an inexorable blob that will swallow people’s lives...and leave people in an environment where they have little control over their privacy.”

Pew’s survey uncovered common threads among responses; many experts agreed that security and privacy are “foundational issues of the digital world” and that people don’t require much more than the draw of convenience to share their personal information.

“Lack of concern about privacy stems from complacency because most people’s life experiences teach them that revealing their private information allows commercial (and public) organisations to make their lives easier (by targeting their needs), whereas the detrimental cases tend to be very serious but relatively rare,” Bob Briscoe, chief researcher in networking and infrastructure for British Telecom, wrote in his response.

We are living in an unprecedented age of surveillance, said John Wilbanks, chief commons officer for the biomedical research company Sage Bionetworks.

“I do not think 10 years is long enough for policymakers to change the way they make policy to keep up with the rate of technological progress. We have never had ubiquitous surveillance before, much less a form of ubiquitous surveillance that emerges primarily from voluntary (if market-obscured) choices,” he said.

What does this mean for the media, which often relies on targeted ads mined from readers’ personal data? The widespread use of personalized ads is a fait accompli, Rainie said. They aren’t going anywhere.

“People don’t freak out now when they see ads that they see on other sites, or ads related to things they search for,” he said. “What experts would say is it’s a settled issue, not a top-of-mind problem.”

The tricky part is figuring out “the Internet of things,” Rainie added, and adapting to future changes in the display and rendering of information.

And social and cultural norms are ever-changing, said Homero Gil de Zuniga, director of the Digital Media Research Program at the University of Texas-Austin. That includes perceptions of privacy.

“By 2025, many of the issues, behaviors, and information we consider to be private today will not be so,” he told Pew. “Information will be even more pervasive, even more liquid, and portable. The digital private sphere, as well as the digital public sphere, will most likely completely overlap.”

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