Social media companies possess a staggering amount of data on their users. This issue became even more pertinent last year,when we learned that information associated with 87 million Facebook users had been illegally accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm based in the UK. Monitoring information on the internet can also be a double-edged sword, with public safety on one side and the risk of invasion of privacy on the other.
What do people from different European countries think about this issue? Should government have the right to monitor all information exchanged on the internet? Luckily The European Values Study (EVS), a large multinational survey research program that has been studying basic human values for almost 40 years, has asked this question. GORBI has been part of the project since 2008 and is the data provider for Georgia and Azerbaijan for the most recent year. It is noteworthy that Georgia is one of the countries most wary of government online surveillance among those studied by the European Values Survey.
Graph1. Government should have right to monitor all information exchanged on the internet (agree, %)
Source: European Value Study, 2017-2018
As we can see from the Graph 1, in none of the surveyed countries does the majority of the population agree with the idea that government should have the right to monitor all information on the internet. It appears from these results that people value their privacy more than their potential security.
This is despite the fact that there are real world cases where internet monitoring by government could prevent atrocities. For example, before emplacing bombs in New York and New Jersey in 2016, Ahmad Khan Rahami bought bomb-making materials on EBay through his public social media account. Had the government been aware of these transactions and their electronic trail, it might have prevented these attacks. On the other hand, some experts such as Steve Rambam, a private investigator specializing in Internet privacy cases, believe that privacy no longer exists; saying, “Privacy is dead – get over it”.
A majority of the population in the surveyed countries seem to share Mr. Rambam’s opinion and still think that government should not have this right. This could be because they either believe that Internet monitoring would not be effective in deterring crime, or that their right to personal privacy is worth sacrificing some potential security to maintain.
Only 32% of Georgians agree that government should have right to monitor all information exchanged on the internet, which makes Georgia quite skepticalcountry regarding internet surveillance.
It is interesting that Iceland, a country that finds itself at the top of the list of skeptical countries, has near universal access to the internet, with 99% of households online. Georgia, near the bottom of this list, only has 64% of its population online, according to recent nationwide studies conducted by GORBI. Could it be that the more people have access to the internet, the more they believe that information exchanged on the internet shouldnot be monitored by the government?
In addition, the motivation for those 32% of Georgians who approve of government internet surveillance, can be explained by an urge for security. Georgia finds itself in a very difficult geopolitical position. It is surrounded by neighbors, from which the threat of terrorist and military aggression is very real.
Only 26% of those aged 15-24 in Georgia say that government should have the right to monitor all information exchanged over internet, while 41% of those aged 65 and more agree. This is especially true for Georgians old enough to remember the several conflicts that took place in Georgian territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This risk might be perceived more acutely in the older generation because they have experienced such attacks personally. In addition, older people think more about not only their personal safety but also about the safety of their children and grandchildren. This reasoning may be applicable not only to Georgia, but might also be characteristic of other countries as well.
Another underlying reason for this could be that In Georgia the older population is not as active online as the younger population, and therefore feel less threatened if government monitors online information since they have little information about themselves on the internet. According to one of the nationwide surveys conducted by GORBI in late 2018, 89% of those aged 18-24 have access to internet, compared to only 39% of population aged 55+. Therefore it is more logical that people who use the internet more often have more reservations regarding government monitoring all of the information exchanged through the internet.
Monitoring information exchanged over the internet can also influence the outcome of elections in the digital age. For example, Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based political consulting firm which worked with Donald Trump’s election team, harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters. It then used modern data science to analyze this data and predict and influence choices at the ballot box. How long will it be before these big data tactics are used in Georgia?
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)