Pew Survey Finds Internet Users Want to Be Anonymous Online But Most Believe It’s Not Possible


How important is it for you to be anonymous when you’re online? What would you be willing to do to protect your online privacy? These are two of the questions addressed in a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project entitled Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online. And the answers, provided by 792 Internet and smartphone users in July, aren’t reassuring.

Americans are getting more worried about their privacy – or should we say, the conspicuous absence of it online. Half of the Internet users who participated in the Pew study are concerned about the increasing amount of information available on them on the Internet, up from 33% in 2009. The vast majority – 86% – tried to hide their digital footprints with measures like encrypting their email, clearing their cookies and browser histories, deleting something previously posted on a site or social network and using virtual private networks to conceal their IP addresses.

Online Visibility Can Lead to Online Crime

What are Internet users afraid of? The Pew researchers found their fears were based on problems caused by other people stealing their personal information or taking advantage of them because of their visibility online.

  • 21% of Internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over by someone without their permission.
  • 13% of Internet users have experienced trouble in a relationship between them and a family member or a friend because of something the user posted online.
  • 12% of Internet users have been stalked or harassed online.
  • 11% of Internet users have had important personal information stolen such as their Social Security Number, credit card or bank account information.
  • 6% of Internet users have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.
  • 4% of Internet users have been led into physical danger due to something that happened online.

Given these findings, it’s not surprising that 59% of Internet users believe it’s not possible to be completely anonymous online. Many Internet users point a finger at the government: 68% think current laws aren’t doing enough to protect their privacy. It’s certainly true that our government has done very little to limit the private tracking of consumers browsing the Web by Google, Facebook and other companies that profit from targeted advertising. Since harvesting consumer data is critical to whether companies make money online, don’t look for that to change any time soon.

Hackers & Advertisers a Bigger Worry Than Government Snooping

Given Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA intercepting millions of emails of ordinary Americans, one finding of the Pew study is especially interesting. Internet users say they’re more concerned with hiding their information from hackers, criminals and advertisers than they are with hiding it from government and law enforcement.

  • 33% had taken steps to hide their activities from hackers and criminals.
  • 28% said they had tried to hide their activities from advertisers.
  • 5% attempted to hide their activities from government; and only 4% from law enforcement.

The Pew survey highlights Internet users’ growing concern that they’re losing ground when it comes to protecting their online privacy. With a record number of Americans – 12.6 million – falling victim to identity fraud last year, it’s a safe bet they’re right.


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