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



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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.

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

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