Based on everything they know and have heard about the internet, only 37% of American internet and smartphone users believe it’s possible for someone to use the internet completely anonymously, so that none of their online activities can be easily traced back to them. That’s one of the takeaways from a new study [pdf] by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which also finds growing concerns regarding the amount of personal data available on the internet.
This year, half of the survey’s respondents said they worry about how much information is available about them on the internet, up from 33% in September 2009. Those worries appear to be well-founded: many respondents said that their photos (66%), birth dates (50%), email addresses (46%) and employer information (44%) are available online. Those numbers were significantly higher for 18-29-year-olds, among whom 90% say their photos are available online.
Online Americans are taking steps to protect themselves, though. 64% have cleared cookies and browser history, 41% have deleted or edited something they had posted in the past, and an equal 41% have set their browser to disable or turn off cookies. 18-29-year-olds – whose information appears to be most readily available online – are also most likely to have taken these steps.
So who are they trying to avoid? Among the 55% who have taken steps to hide from specific people or organizations, hackers or criminals (33%) were the most commonly cited, followed by advertisers (28%), certain friends (19%) and people from their past (19%).
Despite attempts to shore up their privacy online, some respondents have been subject to problems due to compromised personal information. Those problems include having an email or social networking account compromised or taken over without their permission (21%), being stalked or harassed online (12%), and having had important personal information stolen, such as their Social Security Number, credit card or bank account information (11%).
Unfortunately, while 59% of Americans (not just online Americans) think people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously for certain kinds of online activities, an even greater proportion (66%) believe that current privacy laws don’t provide good enough protection for them.
About the Data: The data is derived from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Omnibus Survey, conducted July 11‐ 14, 2013, on landline and cell phones. The sample size was 792 for internet users and smartphone owners. Interviews were conducted in English on landline and cell phones.