Americans’ Worries About Internet Privacy Go Beyond NSA Surveillance

The average citizen has other fish to fry when it comes to living on the Web.

Even though the spotlight continues to shine over government surveillance, Americans face other types of potential privacy threats online.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 5, 2013, 9:55 a.m.

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.

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