By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

According to a recent survey, 86 percent of Internet users have taken at least one step to remove or mask their digital footprints online, and 55 percent have taken steps to avoid observation by certain people—including organizations or the government.

The survey was conducted in July by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, and its results are based on 792 adult Internet users’ responses.

The steps users take to avoid that observation, however, vary from the very simple to tasks that require a bit of technological savvy, said Director Lee Rainie.

“For 86 percent of a population to do something, that’s a large phenomenon,” he said, adding actions range from clearing browser history and disabling cookies (64 percent) to more sophisticated steps such as encrypting e-mail (14 percent).

“I think one way to talk about this data is it has a spectrum,” Rainie said. “Privacy isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of proposition. For many people, it depends on what kind of data is at issue; it depends on who is traditionally watching; it depends on what they think the consequences are, and maybe it even depends on what stage of life they’re at. It’s all conditional and all contextual. It’s not ‘I want full full full privacy’ or ‘I want everyone to know everything.’”

Rainie said that message might be one privacy pros should listen to, as much of the thinking around privacy tends to treat it as a binary issue—either on or off.

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed indicated they don’t believe current laws are sufficient to protect people’s privacy online, and most said they knew that “key pieces of personal information about them are available online,” including their birthdates, phone numbers, home addresses and the groups to which they belong. Thirty-six percent said they have not used a website because it asked for their real name, and 41 percent deleted or edited something they’d posted in the past.

In a significant change from years prior, 50 percent of users surveyed said they’re worried about the amount of personal information about them online. In 2009, just 33 percent shared that concern.

However, given recent revelations about U.S. government access to data, it may surprise some to learn that respondents were more concerned with hiding data from hackers (33 percent), friends, family members, romantic partners, employers or coworkers than they were the government (five percent) or law enforcement (four percent).

“We were surprised by those numbers,” Rainie said. “I think what that indicates is for many people, in their day-to-day dealings in the digital world, their top-of-mind awareness involves the stuff that’s in front of them—the people they’re dealing with, the advertising their observing. They aren’t necessarily thinking, because there aren’t any sort of prompts, ‘Oh, the government must be watching.’”

He noted research collected by Pew’s political arm that indicates even people who think the government is collecting more data on them than it discloses still support government surveillance programs if it’s said to thwart terrorism.

Next, Rainie said, Pew aims to understand public awareness; that is, what kind of tracking is occurring; what type of actions put users into public databases, and how knowledgeable users are about what is happening in the online world.

Read More by Angelique Carson:
Consumers: Forget Screen Size, Cameras; Sell Us Privacy
PCLOB Finds a Director, Looks Toward Action
Did NTIA's Multi-Stakeholder Process Work? Depends Whom You Ask.
The Campaign for a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights


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