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
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
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
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 lives.
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
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
Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook had no immediate comment.
Amazon and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
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.
[to top of second column]
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)
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