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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Americans Go to Great Lengths to Mask their Web Travels, Survey Finds

Most Americans say they believe the law is inadequate in protecting their privacy online. The e-mail or social media accounts of one in five have been broken into. And most American consumers take great efforts to mask their identities online.

These findings are part of a survey by the Pew Internet Center that was released Thursday. They come amid a cascade of widely publicized revelations about the depth of United States government surveillance on the electronic communications of its citizens. And they challenge the conventional wisdom advanced in support of both commercial tracking and official monitoring of Web services: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

Apparently, most Americans do have something to hide - at least from complete strangers trying to profit from knowing what they do online. The Pew survey found that 86 percent of Americans were trying to scrub their digital footprints by doing a variety of things, like clearing browsing histories, deleting certain social media posts, using virtual networks to conceal their Internet Protocol addresses, and even, for a few, using encryption tools.

“Our team’s biggest surprise was discovering that many Internet users have tried to conceal their identity or their communications from others,” noted Sara Kiesler, an author of the report and a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s not just a small coterie of hackers. Almost everyone has taken some action to avoid surveillance.”

The findings come at a time when many lawmakers have reacted with outrage about government surveillance but done very little to curb private tracking of Americans Web browsing. Google and Facebook, among other popular services, profit almost entirely on the behaviorally targeted advertising. What we write in our e-mails, what we browse online and what we buy, both online and offline, are compiled and analyzed, all in the service of showing us what the digital advertising industry calls “relevant” advertising.

Efforts to develop global standards for Do Not Track browser settings have been stalled. Anyway, as consumers move to smartphones, companies and advertisers have devised new ways of tracking them.

The legislature in California recently approved a measure to require Web sites to tell users whether they honor Do Not Track signals on browser settings. The bill does not prohibit tracking, but requires all Web services to spell out what they do when faced with a Do Not Track signal, which some browsers turn it on automatically. It is now pending the California governor’s signature.

The Pew survey was carried out on the phone with 792 adult Americans in July. It contained a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points. In the survey, 55 percent said they were worried about the breadth of personal information that exists about them online, considerably higher than the 33 percent who admitted to being worried in 2009.

Public concern seemed also to stem from apprehension about the law. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they believed the nation’s laws were “not good enough in protecting their privacy online.”

Users experimented with a variety of strategies to mask themselves. About half said they posted material using their real names, or aliases commonly associated with them. But one in four surveyed said they “posted material without revealing who they are.” Young people were more likely than others to switch back and forth, suggesting what previous studies have suggested: that digital natives, as the generation who grew up with the Internet are called, heavily curate their online identities.

The sometimes painful consequence of disclosure was also reflected. Just over 20 percent said an intruder had broken into their e-mail or social networking account; 12 percent said they had been “stalked or harassed;” and 10 percent had lost sensitive information to online thieves, including bank account information.

These findings are echoed by a poll also issued Thursday by TrustE, a San Francisco company that vets the privacy policies of Web sites and mobile apps and gives a seal of approval to those that meet its criteria. It found that nearly four out of five smartphone users in the United States were reluctant to download apps they did not trust.

More than two-thirds of mobile users did not like being tracked for the purposes of behavioral advertising. And even as about half of all smartphone users said they were willing to share some personal information in exchange for shopping discounts, most were loathe to reveal their exact location or their Web browsing activity.

The TrustE survey was conducted online with over 700 Internet users in the United States in June.

In March, before a former National Security Agency contractor began to leak details about the agency’s surveillance apparatus, a survey by Forrester Research picked up on a trend of heightened privacy concerns among consumers about online tracking for behavioral advertising.

Commissioned by Neustar, an Internet service provider company, Forrester’s survey found that 27 percent of Americans were using an ad blocking tool when they browse the Web; 18 percent had turned on a “Do Not Track” setting in their browsers.