Pew: 86% Of U.S. Adults Make Efforts To Hide Digital Footprints Online; Fear Of Creeping Ads And Hackers Outweighs Spying

In one of the latest developments in the fallout of the PRISM story, the ACLU is currently suing four officials in the Obama Administration to try to get federal courts to put a stop to the NSA’s metadata program and delete all existing records. But if you ask the general U.S. population, as surveyed by the Pew Research Center, the average U.S. citizen appears to be more concerned about the data-collecting abilities of advertising networks like those of Google and Facebook, faceless malicious hackers, and even friends and family, than they are the government.

In this latest installment of its ongoing Internet & American Life research, Pew found that 86 percent of surveyed adult Internet users in the U.S. have made efforts to obscure their “digital footprints” — which could include simple measures like clearing cookies in your browser or something more involved like encrypting your email. Some 55 percent have taken this one step further by trying to block specific people or organizations — services like, for example, have built an entire business on creating these tools.

But it is a sign of just how nebulous and pervasive privacy concerns are today that these efforts are not directed solely at state or government groups — despite all the recent attention from the PRISM revelations and the government’s role in gathering data.

“[Users’] concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance,” writes Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and one of the report’s authors. “In fact, they are more intent on trying to mask their personal information from hackers, advertisers, friends and family members than they are trying to avoid observation by the government.”

In fact, it seems that fear of losing money, or information that may lead to the loss of money, is at the root of how people feel about security and privacy online. That’s not a surprise for a generally law-abiding population that long ago, with the rise of social networks and mass media that favors confessional, tell-all formats, gave up the idea of privacy for privacy’s sake. Those surveyed by Pew named hackers and criminals as their biggest threat, at 33%, with advertisers a close second at 28%, and “certain friends” at 19% (clearly, the kind of friends that you keep even closer than your enemies). After other categories like employers (11%) and exes (19%), government and law enforcement languish at the very bottom of the list, at 5% and 4% respectively:

biggest threats

But that doesn’t mean that law and government don’t come into the equation in another way. Because there are so many possibilities for how and where your data and personal information may get compromised, some 68% of adults said they believed that there weren’t good enough privacy protection laws in place. Certain groups are taking this sentiment farther, of course: in one recent example, six privacy groups are appealing to the FTC to try to block the latest round of privacy changes from Facebook.

Pew’s reports are interesting because they are as much about how users are behaving, as they are about how users perceive things to be. In this case, Pew has collected a lot of data about security and data breaches, but it’s based on what users themselves suspect to have been a breach. The big question remains whether the resulting data is vastly underestimating, or overestimating, how big of an issue this really is. That’s when it may be important to look also at data from others like online and antivirus companies, and (yes) government agencies, to triangulate on the issue.

Here are some of the other stats from the report.

— Some 21 percent of respondents (there were 792 for this survey) said their email or social media accounts had been hijacked. Ten percent said they’d had identifying data stolen — this could come from social security cards, payment cards or bank account information.

— Six percent have been scammed online and lost money as a result; 6 percent also said their reputations had been damaged. Some 4 percent say that certain online activities had led them into danger offline.

— Of those who have made an effort to try to protect their online identities, it looks like cookie control is the easiest and most popular defense, used by 64 percent of respondents to clear cookies and by 41 percent to disable them altogether. The breakdown of other methods:

pew: how to hide yourself

— Signs are pointing towards more awareness — and more worry. Fifty percent of respondents say they are “worried” about what personal information of theirs is online, and Pew points out that this is a leap from the 33 percent who thought this in 2009. Despite that, we are still seeing a lot of strong growth in areas like social networking and e-commerce, two trends that seem to run counter to how people are feeling about their security. This spells either a collision course at some point in the future or a realization that some online activities are not as bad as others.

In either case, users want to be the ones deciding how data is used, not anyone else.

“These findings reinforce the notion that privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition for internet users,” writes Mary Madden, senior researcher at Pew Research. “People choose different strategies for different activities, for different content, to mask themselves from different people, at different times in their lives. What they clearly want is the power to decide who knows what about them.”