Science & Technology
7:35 am
Thu September 5, 2013

As People Put More Personal Info Online, Privacy Concerns Persist

A majority of Internet users admit they have taken steps to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations (including the government), and many believe current privacy laws do not go far enough in protecting online privacy.

The Pew Research Center and Carnegie Mellon University conducted a national survey to determine the level of desire among Internet users to be anonymous online, why and what problems they have encountered.

One of the findings is that 86 percent of Internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.

“That could be anything from just clearing cookies to taking further steps like using a fake name or using a proxy server to disassociate their identity from what they had done,” said Sara Kiesler, a CMU professor and one of the report’s authors.

The reasons for wanting to be anonymous vary.

“It could be anything from not wanting your boss to know that you’re interested in Baroque music or something a little more racy,” Kiesler said, “or not wanting your parents to know that you’re in a health support group, or just keeping your relationships separate.”

Also at the top of the concern list for Internet users is identity theft and hacking. The survey found that:

  • 21 percent of Internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over by someone else without permission.
  • 12 percent have been stalked or harassed online.
  • 10 percent have had important personal information stolen such as their Social Security Number, credit card or bank account information.
  • 6 percent have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.
  • 6 percent have had their reputation damaged because of something that happened online.
  • 4 percent have been led into physical danger because of something that happened online.

About 50 percent of Internet users said they are worried about the amount of personal information about them that is online. Still, that isn’t stopping people from posting things.

“The most astonishing thing is the extent to which people really are concerned about who knows who they are and about how much of their personal information is online, even as they put more personal information online,” said Kiesler.

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believe privacy laws have not caught up with current technology.

“From your interactions online – everything from bank records to the friends you have, a lot of known about you and people feel like the privacy laws are not realistic in the sense of helping people have some control of what can be done with this information,” Kiesler said.

But privacy and anonymity can get tricky. Kiesler said while most users want privacy for completely harmless reasons, some don’t.

“Even though a majority of people are not wanting to hide online in order to avoid law enforcement, there are people, even in this survey, who said they were,” she said. “They’re probably people doing things online they shouldn’t be doing, that are illegal, so there’s going to have to be a balance of policy.”

The findings are based on data from telephone interviews taken from a sample of 1,002 adults ages 18 and older. Results from 792 Internet and smartphone users in the sample have a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.

Kiesler points out that this is a small study, and more needs to be known than what was gleaned from one survey. She said she hopes the report stimulates more work, especially policy-related work, to find out what kinds of policies would be acceptable to the public and others who use the Internet, such as law enforcement agencies.