International Survey

International surveillance and privacy opinion research

Conducted under the Globalization of Personal Data Project

Lead researcher: Elia Zureik
Department of Sociology
Queen's University

With assistance from Emily Smith, Lynda Harling Stalker, and Shannon Yurke

To our knowledge, this is the first cross-national study of its kind that surveys attitudes to and experiences with the global flow of personal data, with special focus on privacy and surveillance. To accomplish this objective, a nine-country international survey that is part of a larger study on the global flow of personal data using face-to-face and telephone interviews is being undertaken in: Canada and the US in North America, Brazil and Mexico in Latin America, China and Japan in East Asia, and France, Hungary, and Spain in Europe. It is hoped that the surveys will be completed by the end of July 2006, and data will be made available for analysis immediately thereafter. The quantitative surveys were preceded by qualitative focus group interviews in the above countries. The latter data is now available for analysis.

The research project is guided by the following overarching concerns:

  • To provide cross-cultural comparisons on issues related to privacy and surveillance in the context of global flow of personal information;
  • To anchor the research in the mushrooming literature on privacy and surveillance by providing empirical data;
  • To attempt an explanation of attitudes towards and experience with privacy and surveillance on several levels: national values, regulatory policies, trust in public and private sector institutions, the role of the media, the events of 9/11, and a host of demographic variables in each of the participating countries;
  • Although the digital divide concept captured the attention of researchers, and indeed has shown its utility by highlighting in a binary fashion the haves and have-nots in terms of access to information and communication technology, current debate suggests that such focus is limiting. Instead, it is suggested that the binary focus be replaced by an "inequality" focus in which access and use of the technology is analyzed by means of several indicators based on education, income, gender, etc. Our study has the advantage of being able to analyze the demographic correlates to familiarity and experience with the technology, including attitudes to privacy and surveillance;
  • At the level of values and national (political) cultures the study explores relationships between attitudinal and experiential data on the one hand, and what we know about trust in how corporations and governments in general handle personal information, including the sharing of such information with third parties;
  • This study does not investigate political culture characteristics as such but seeks to relate attitudes to government regulation of privacy and surveillance by drawing upon available international surveys in which countries are ranked with regard to modes of political orientations as in the World Values Surveys;
  • Complementing the World Values Survey as a source for value orientations as predictors of orientations to privacy and mindful of its shortcomings, the study draws upon the work of Geert Hofstede by using his Indexes to link attitudes to privacy to core societal values that are related to power, uncertainty, individualism and masculinity;
  • A main objective of the study is to relate experience and familiarity with the technology to attitudes about privacy and surveillance;
  • At the level of exposure to the media, the study explores the role of the media as perceived by the public in terms of striking a balance between highlighting the threat of terrorism, national security and privacy protection;
  • An area that is under-researched in surveillance and privacy studies is the (un)equal distribution of knowledge and familiarity with personal data protection methods, in particular with regard to internet and online usage;
  • Focus group interviews were carried out in order to highlight cross-cultural variations attributed to the meaning and importance of privacy, international public opinion polls related to the various dimensions of privacy were consulted, and anchoring vignettes were used to increase validity of the questions across cultures.

Relevant Publications