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A remarkable nine out of 10 consumers say they have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by corporations, a new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center has found. Virtually the same number feel like it would be “very difficult” to remove inaccurate information about them online. And roughly two-thirds believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers and how they use personal information.

On the other hand, more than half said they were willing to share “some information” about themselves in order to use online services for free, and about one-third say that surveillance can be beneficial for society.

The results show Americans’ feelings about privacy are varied and subtle, said Lee Rainie, director of the Internet Project and a co-author of the study.

“Far from being apathetic about their privacy, most Americans say they want to do more to protect it,” Rainie said. “It’s also clear that different types of information elicit different levels of sensitivity among Americans.”

The slew of data breaches at major retailers over the past year have put privacy concerns front and center in Americans’ minds. Credit monitoring, transaction alerts and general vigilance of where you share your data and who you share it with are all part of keeping your data footprint limited. It won’t necessarily prevent identity theft or fraud (two consequences of sharing your personal information broadly), but it can make dealing with it easier. Any large, unexpected changes in your credit score could be signs of new-account fraud. (You can use free online tools – including those at Credit.com – to monitor your scores for any changes in your credit scores. You can also get free credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com.)

Other findings in the poll, which questioned a representative cross section of Americans:

When they want to have anonymity online, few feel that is easy to achieve. Just 24% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online.”

  • 61% of adults “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement: “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data.”
  • 80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.
  • 70% of social networking site users say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites
  • Generally, people trust old technology more than new for privacy. People trust old-fashioned telephones more than social media or text messages, for example. They even trust landline phones more than cellphones.
  • 36% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online.”

Privacy law expert Chris Hoofnagle, a teacher at Berkeley Law school was reviewed the study, noted that attitudes about surveillance were linked to citizens’ education levels.

“A sizable minority agrees with the idea that surveillance is beneficial for society. This group was characterized as younger and less well educated, with each step in more education resulting in less agreement of its beneficence,” he said. “I think there are very interesting class dynamics in privacy …. A question to ask here is why does this group find beneficence in surveillance? Could it be because they are heavily surveilled and simply do not have a choice over the matter?”

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