The majority of Internet users don’t feel laws adequately protect their privacy online and have tried to avoid being tracked, according to a report released today by the Pew Internet Project.
Almost 90% of adult Internet users, the study found, have taken steps like clearing cookies, encrypting email and using an alias in order to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations.
It's no surprise Americans are conscious enough of online tracking to try to avoid it from time to time. Many have noticed ads following them around the Internet—the result of advertisers’ cookies—or use products like Google Now that rely on their online habits to deliver relevant information. One firm called Acxiom that sells consumer data profiles, which include information such education level, marital status, and recent purchases, yesterday began showing users what it knows about them (after they input their social security number, of course). Earlier this summer, leaked documents revealed the NSA’s massive electronic surveillance program, PRISM, which collected user data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and other online companies.
On top of news stories like these, many Internet users have had personal experience with their information getting into the wrong hands. According to the Pew study, 21% of Internet users have had their email or social networking account compromised by someone without their permission, and 10% of users have had important personal information stolen including their social security number, credit card, or bank account information.
None of this has inspired much confidence. Many Internet users—about 55%—believe that it is impossible to be completely anonymous online, and 68% believe current laws are "not good enough" at protecting people’s privacy.
Some government officials apparently feel the same way. "Our most intimate information floats free in cyberspace, ripe for any data miner—government or otherwise—to collect, use, package, and sell," wrote FTC member Julie Brill in a Washington Post op-ed piece last month. "All day long, as we surf the Web, tap at apps or power up our smartphones, we send digital information out into cyberspace . . . firms, governments or individuals, without our knowledge or consent, can amass large amounts of private information about people to use for purposes we don’t expect or understand," she said.
[Image: Flickr user Britt-Knee]