Facebook is proposing to end its practice of letting users vote on changes to its privacy policies. A poll has revealed that many Americans are wary of internet companies. Photo: AP

San Francisco - The personal data gathering ability of Google, Facebook and other tech companies has sparked growing unease among Americans, with a majority worried that internet companies are encroaching too much on their lives, a poll showed.

Google and Facebook 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. It 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 largest businesses.

Now, as the boundaries between web products and real world services blur, many top internet companies are racing to put their stamp on everything from home appliances to drones and automobiles.

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 firms and launching ambitious technology projects.

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.

The poll measures accuracy using a credibility interval and is accurate to plus/minus 1.6 percentage points.

“It’s accurate to say that many people have love-hate relationships with some providers,” said Nuala O’Connor, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an internet public policy group which has received funding from firms 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 crystallised when Google acknowledged in 2010 that its fleet of StreetView cars, which criss-cross the globe taking panoramic photos for its online mapping service, had inadvertently collected e-mails and other personal information transmitted over unencrypted home wireless networks.

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 (R33.7bn) acquisition of smart thermostat maker Nest. Google is also investing in self-driving cars, augmented-reality glasses, robots and drones.

About 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. Roughly two-thirds of respondents are 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 budget analyst in Colorado who took part in the survey. “They have access to so much data that they could use inappropriately.”

Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook had no immediate comment. Amazon and Twitter did not respond.

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.

Public sensitivity about privacy was heightened by revelations of US 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.

The concerns would become more pressing as internet firms expanded the scope of their activities, said Marc Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. “The links between the online world and offline world are growing tighter. It’s no longer unplugging your laptop and rejoining the physical world, because the online world follows you,” he said, citing examples such as Google’s acquisition of home appliance maker Nest.

Calo said: “There’s a constellation of technologies that are next, that are new, that are transforming, and they are unsettling.” – Reuters