Americans are stockpiling their privacy. According to a new Pew survey, 86 percent of Internet users across the country have taken measures to delete or mask their digital footprints. They clear their cookies, encrypt emails, and log on to networks that obscure their IP addresses.
Presumably, the recent drive to hide our tracks on the Web stems from a string of news reports detailing just how much of the average citizen's online activity the U.S. intelligence community can tap. But some of the most interesting numbers from the national survey aren't related to the threat of digital snooping by the government.
A sizable 21 percent of Internet users have had their e-mail or social-media accounts hacked. Recent hacks of major publications and corporations' websites and Twitter accounts show that, these days, no one is safe, not even the king bee Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook page was compromised last month to reveal a security flaw.
For the average citizen, such hacks usually come from criminals with an Internet connection. Eleven percent of users said they've had personal information, such as their credit-card or bank information and Social Security number, stolen online.
Half of Internet users are worried about the trove of personal information about them—birth dates, phone numbers, addresses—floating around on the Web. But what are average citizens really doing about it? They could add a few extra numbers or special characters to their dozens of passwords, but even that is ultimately futile. A report by Deloitte found early this year that more than 90 percent of user-generated passwords are vulnerable to hacking.
What happens on the Internet doesn't always stay on the Internet, either. Thirteen percent of survey participants said something they posted online has gotten them in trouble with family members or friends off the Web. About 12 percent have been stalked or harassed online. Six percent have taken a hit to their real-life reputations because of events that transpired online, and 4 percent have found themselves in physical danger as a result of online activity.
According to the survey, 68 percent of Internet users think current laws are not successful enough in protecting their privacy online. But for the most part, it seems like many users have accepted the inevitable risks of living online. Even as they make moves to protect their online activity, 59 percent of Internet users don't think it's possible to remain completely anonymous.
Then again, a different statistic suggests Americans may be more apathetic about their privacy online than this Pew survey suggests: 47 percent say the media shouldn't report on the government's classified antiterrorism efforts, which includes secret surveillance of average citizens.