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A Survey Asks: How Much Does Your Privacy Online Matter?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Is online anonymity important to you? How far are you willing to go to protect your privacy? These two the key questions are examined in a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Entitled “Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online,” the study found that most Internet users take some measures to cover their digital backsides, even though many believe that complete online anonymity remains out of reach.

Of the 792 Internet users Pew interviewed, 86 percent have taken steps to erase the digital breadcrumbs of their online activity. The most common ways of doing this include: Clearing cookies and browser histories; deleting or editing something previously posted on a site or social network; setting browsers to disable or turn off cookies; and not using a Web site because it requests inputting a user’s real name.

More sophisticated, though less common, privacy protections identified by Pew respondents included encrypting email and using a virtual private network (VPN) or proxy server such as Tor to prevent firms from tracking online activity. Scientific American recently highlighted five techniques, including Tor, for keeping one’s Web activity from prying eyes.

Slightly more than half of the Internet users in Pew’s study have taken steps to hide from others. Hackers and cybercriminals top the list of undesirables shunned, followed by advertisers, certain friends and former acquaintances.

Was the effort to maintain online anonymity worth it? That depended on whether the respondent had been burned by making too much personal info publicly available. The most common entanglements: 21 percent had an e-mail or social networking account compromised. Meanwhile, 12 percent reported having been stalked or harassed online, with 11 percent saying they have had important personal information stolen such as a Social Security number, credit card or bank account information. Younger adults online—ages 18 to 29—are the most likely to have experienced one or more of these problems.

Of course, a log-in and password are generally required to take advantage of most social networks, e-mail services and other amenities the Web has to offer. The researchers point out that online “privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition.” Different people choose different strategies depending on the activity involved, the content they’re sharing and the people likely to see that content.

All study participants were 18 years or older. What we don’t learn is whether the Web’s youngest users are taking measures to guard their privacy, indeed whether this is even a personal concern. Children are less likely than grownups to display inhibitions about sharing photos of themselves and about providing clues via Instagram or another tool about where they live. The problem only worsens because more kids own smart phones and other mobile devices.

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Traveler 007 12:47 pm 09/5/2013

    How do you stop the Gov from spying on you?

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  2. 2. Your valued customer 3:30 pm 09/5/2013

    You make the government aware that it ultimately kicks it’s own ass. The cost of the lack of internet privacy to the economy are bigger than possible gains.

    The example of Britain is revealing. Britain installed an elaborate system of spying “filtering” internet, only that Chinese telecom company got access to all to business information exchanged by British companies.

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  3. 3. Pippa2221 1:39 am 09/6/2013

    For years I was trying to hide from an ex who had been violent. I thought I’d been extremely careful about what I’d put online, but a friend brought up my name and address within seconds. It turned out that the (supposedly private) website where I’d registered my own website’s domain name had allowed the information to become public. My friend told me he’d have found it through something else, even if they hadn’t. I still find it terrifying. Many women need to hide from violent ex-partners, and probably believe – like me – that they are doing so, when in fact all their details are freely available.

    I also find it incredibly annoying that you have to put in your date of birth, whatever you do. This makes it much harder to hide, and also it is not the sort of information you want everyone to know.

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  4. 4. Pippa2221 1:43 am 09/6/2013

    From the point of view of the government spying on me – I don’t think I’m bothered. I do understand that people worry after what happened in Nazi Germany, but at the same time, our security depends on this kind of activity. If it was a choice between being completely free to do what I want and being bombed, or having everyone’s email monitored and staying safe, I know what I’d choose.

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  5. 5. Blastin_Nancy 3:13 pm 09/10/2013

    Internet security means everything to me. I have written a couple of programs that protect me from prying eyes, that includes any alphabet agencies. I use them when I need to conceal certain facts, clients or personal information. The protection has never been broken, for the main reason, they never know when I am using it. It is under their radar and in testing, has never been broken into. Canned protection is as effective as using tin foil for a bullet proof vest. All the retail programs want is your money. They can be ripped in less than 15 seconds by a first year tech student.

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  6. 6. Steven 3:44 pm 09/10/2013

    This is all crazy. Of course everyone wants privacy.
    No one wants somebody snooping on their ever day affairs, whether it is how you tie your shoes or where you do your banking.
    If the government agencies devoted their efforts to getting rid of the viruses, hackers, spammers, phishers, criminals and people trying to break into your computer or website to take advantage of you in some way or another, then I think some of their activity would be at least understandable, however it seems rather than trying to protect the privacy of everyone, they are adding to their vulnerability.

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  7. 7. phalaris 1:39 am 09/11/2013

    There are societies out there which are dominated by criminality and violence : the news from Mexico or Guatemala often makes me turn away in horror; here in Europe the mafia effectively runs people’s lives in some places. The line separating “our” societies from lawless ones is thinner than some people imagine.
    And this is before we get to the perceived greatest threat in the west: political and religious terrorism.

    How much privacy are people prepared to trade for a safe society where the rule of law prevails?

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  8. 8. Tandem78 8:32 am 09/11/2013

    I think you misunderstand something. We have laws governing the right to privacy that have been passed by the elected representatives of the people. The underhand clandestine snooping is illegal and makes a mockery of the principles of democratic decision-making. So your question really is, how far are you prepared to let secret government organizations turn democracy into a farce?

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