By Alexei Oreskovic
SAN FRANCISCO, April 4 The personal data
gathering abilities of Google, Facebook and
other tech companies has sparked growing unease among Americans,
with a majority worried that Internet companies are encroaching
too much upon their lives, a new poll showed.
Google and Facebook generally topped lists of Americans'
concerns about the ability to track physical locations and
monitor spending habits and personal communications, according
to a poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos from March 11 to March 26.
The survey highlights a growing ambivalence towards Internet
companies whose popular online services, such as social
networking, e-commerce and search, have blossomed into some of
the world's largest businesses.
Now, as the boundaries between Web products and real world
services begin to blur, many of the top Internet companies are
racing to put their stamp on everything from home appliances to
drones and automobiles.
With billions of dollars in cash, high stock prices, and an
appetite for more user data, Google, Facebook, Amazon
and others are acquiring a diverse set of companies and
launching ambitious technology projects.
But their grand ambitions are inciting concern, according to
the poll of nearly 5,000 Americans. Of 4,781 respondents, 51
percent replied "yes" when asked if those three companies, plus
Apple, Microsoft and Twitter, were
pushing too far and expanding into too many areas of people's
This poll measures accuracy using a credibility interval and
is accurate to plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.
"It's very accurate to say that many people have love-hate
relationships with some of their technology providers," said
Nuala O'Connor, the President of the Center for Democracy and
Technology, an Internet public policy group which has received
funding from companies including Google, Amazon and Microsoft.
"As technology moves forward, as new technologies are in use
and in people's lives, they should question 'Is this a fair deal
between me and the device?'"
Fears about the expanding abilities of tech companies
crystallized when Google acknowledged in 2010 that its fleet of
StreetView cars, which criss-cross the globe taking panoramic
photos for Google's online mapping service, had inadvertently
collected emails and other personal information transmitted over
unencrypted home wireless networks.
Yet many Americans remain ignorant of the extent to which
Internet companies are trying to extend their reach.
Google is one of the most aggressively ambitious, investing
in the connected home through its $3.2 billion acquisition of
smart thermostat maker Nest. Google is also investing in
self-driving cars, augmented-reality glasses, robots and drones.
Almost a third of Americans say they know nothing about
plans by Google and its rivals to get into real-world products
such as phones, cars and appliances. Still, roughly two thirds
of respondents are already worried about what Internet companies
will do with the personal information they collect, or how
securely they store the data.
"We're getting to a point in society where basically
everything's going to be tracked," said Richard Armitage, a
46-year-old budget analyst in Colorado who participated in the
survey. "They have access to so much data that they could use
inappropriately in my opinion."
Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook had no immediate
comment. Amazon and Twitter did not respond to requests for
But all have said protecting customers' privacy is a top
priority, or published strict policies restricting the use of
personal data if needed. For instance, storing select data can
make online searches and services more reliable.
EMBRACING THE REAL WORLD
Public sensitivity about privacy was heightened by
revelations of U.S. surveillance activities by the National
Security Agency, as leaked by former spy contractor Edward
Snowden, said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of
Washington who recently wrote a paper about the legal and social
implications of robotics.
Those concerns will become even more pressing as Internet
companies expand the scope of their activities, said Marc
Rotenberg, director of EPIC, a privacy advocacy group.
"The links between the online world and the offline world
are growing tighter," he said. "It's no longer unplugging your
laptop and walking away and rejoining the physical world,
because the online world is now following you," he said, citing
examples like Google's acquisition of home appliance maker Nest.
Google has said it will not combine user data from Nest
products with the data it collects about it users of its other
online services, but some privacy advocates remain concerned.
New wearable devices, like fitness bracelets and
smartwatches that monitor heart rates and other biological
information, will increasingly allow companies to collect
biological data, said Jonathan Zittrain, the director of Harvard
University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
"The whole can become more than a sum of parts," when it
comes to personal information, said Zittrain. "Little bits of
innocuous data...can add up to very revealing, and sometimes
intensely private, insights," about people, he said.
As Internet companies expand their scope of activities, they
may not be able to count on the same level of public goodwill
they enjoyed as smaller companies. Twenty-seven percent of the
survey respondents said they did not think Google adhered to the
"Don't Be Evil" slogan that has long been its unofficial motto.
Of the respondents to the survey, 42 percent said they had
negative feelings about Internet companies developing drones
which both Amazon and Facebook have said they are investigating,
while 29 percent felt negatively about robots, which Google
thrust to the forefront with its acquisition of Boston Dynamics.
Only 13 percent of respondents indicated negative feelings
about Internet companies offering home appliances however.
"It happens to be that there's a constellation of
technologies that are next, that are new, that are transforming,
and they are unsettling," Calo said.
(Editing by Edwin Chan)