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Who Places More Trust in the Government and Social Media Firms? We in the UK Do!

Who Places More Trust in the Government and Social Media Firms? We in the UK Do!

government vs privacy
September 26, 2019 | Sarah Clarke

In a recent survey,

the UK unexpectedly beat France, Germany, and the US when it comes to trusting the government and social media companies to do the right thing with personal data.

Everyone in the security and privacy trade has strong feelings about personal data and vulnerability to inappropriate use, loss, theft, or disclosure. We all have different benchmarks for acceptable risk and what might justify a confidentiality compromise.




We generally set little store by the assertion that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, and agree that you can’t break encryption for one without breaking encryption for all, but we expect people outside the trade to be a bit more trusting. What I didn’t expect was a noteworthy difference in consumer trust levels between us and the other surveyed countries, but that’s exactly what showed up.


50% of respondents in the UK agree with encryption backdoors

The UK, on the face of it, trust the government AND social media firms more than respondents in France, Germany and the US. In a survey of 4000 individuals across those four countries, these are some of the key findings:

  • On average, 36% of consumers think laws that allow governments to access encrypted personal and private data make us safer from terrorists, but in the UK 50% of respondents think these types of laws will make them safer.
  • On average, 30% of consumers trust the government to protect their personal and private data. In the UK this confidence was higher at 40%.
  • 22% of respondents trust social media companies to protect their personal and private data. Again, UK were the most trusting at 31%.

Why, I was challenged to opine, is this the case? Do my countryfolk really have more faith in these institutions that their European and American counterparts?

Why, I was forced to opine, is this the case?

As a UK born, bred, and resident data privacy and security person, that doesn’t, on first reading, make a blind bit of sense. In the context of current events the greater trust in our government is the more obviously surprising result, but less pronounced distrust in social media firms is also a surprise. Germany (and to a lesser extent France), are stereotyped as having a culturally ingrained distrust of government data handling, but the US is reportedly far more forgiving. Why then don’t figures agree?  

Time, I thought, to put my objective head back:

  1. Are UK consumers just generally more trusting of our institutions?

Quick answer: Maybe

Here are some figures from the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer. They do an annual global survey of trust in institutions. When looking at the general population and measuring trust across; business, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), government, and media, we still look marginally more trusting, but you don’t see the same degree of variance.



From page 6 of report

What then is going on? Let’s dig a bit more

  1. Are UK consumers just generally more trusting of the government when it comes to surveillance and surveillance oversight?

Quick Answer: Maybe

Focusing on the UK and US, these are some stats from the 2017 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 2019 Gallup report on trust in institutions. Of the Brits, 80% think the government definitely or probably should have the right to keep people under video surveillance in public areas, while 50% think they should have the right to monitor emails and other information on the internet. In the US, 73% have a high degree of confidence in the military.

That appears to suggest that both the US and UK have comparably high trust in the government in a surveillance / military context.

However, for the US at least that differs starkly from more general trust in government and social media, with only 11% saying they trust Congress and 16% reportedly trusting Internet News. 

Question: Do you think that the British government should or should not have the right to do the following:

Question: Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one -- a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little?

That’s certainly not enough to draw any confident conclusions.


More general context and takeaways?

In the UK, national security threat rhetoric, mainly focused on terrorists and paedophiles, has helped to pass successive laws that broaden UK government surveillance rights. The underlying threat landscape will be infinitely more complex, but access and ability to see and interpret that complexity is limited. A factor likely driving that variance between informed and general populations. At the same time, news about social media privacy breaches has blown up. Another area where a lay person has little chance of understanding the complexity of associated risk. All repeatedly reinforced by related Brexit reporting, with its own layers of facts, half-truths, and downright lies. That must also have impacted results, but to what extent?

That, in a nutshell, drives the overall conclusion: There is no reliable conclusion.

Despite crunching a bunch of debatably useful numbers, I can’t claim to have thrown any real causal light on this. I also haven’t dug very deep (I scrupulously avoided any conversation about class…for a whole raft of reasons). My historical impression, from my privacy and security perspective: There is a generally consistent level of distrust in the government and social media, or, more accurately, a default to conditional trust with a demand to verify, but our industries are arguably powered by paranoia. I also had a general impression that my countryfolk remain more sarcastically skeptical about the powers that be, but that’s not borne out by the numbers. The story is far more complex and should, in my opinion, be far more focused on a long-term trend towards greater division and more general distrust.


In the end,

even if it’s nothing more than a blip, as opposed to greater national faith that we are living under benign public sector and technical governance, it prompted me to examine my own ingrained assumptions and how they might need to evolve. A slightly abrupt summing up, mainly as reaction to the zeitgeist of trumpeting every glimpsed but tenuous correlation as a shiny new fact. There’s plenty of potential damage if we spin up the wrong soundbite, as illustrated by too many recent events. Better perhaps to treat it as a useful reminder to check facts and tailor what we say. Reflecting on differences in access to knowledge and what circumstance, culture, and news can do to how people view the world today.



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About the author

Sarah Clarke
Sarah Clarke

Sarah Clarke has 18 years of experience in IT, information security and data risk related roles. Also an award winning blog author and occasional speaker, she seeks to evangelize everyday understanding of practical privacy and security. Through her efforts, she seeks to bridge the gap between technology, law, and the board.

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