Online privacy fears: Is there a path forward?

An analysis by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found 45 percent of Americans refrain from certain online activities because they are concerned about their privacy or security being compromised.  

Carolyn Kaster/AP
An iPhone screen. A government survey found 45 percent of Americans refrain from certain online activities because they fear their information isn't safe.

Nearly half of Americans refrain from online activities such as banking or shopping out of security and privacy fears, according to a survey released Friday by a federal telecommunication agency.  

Forty-five percent of households surveyed said that security and privacy concerns – including identity theft, fraud, data collection, and loss of control of personal data – discouraged them from conducting online banking and shopping or posting about controversial or political matters on social networks, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) reported.  

"NTIA will continue to analyze relevant data , as well as potential policies – such as encouraging the widespread deployment of strong encryption and other security measures – that could help build trust in the Internet and stimulate the free flow of information and commerce online," reads the report.  

One set of policies the agency refers to are those included in a bill the White House introduced in spring 2015 that seeks to give consumers more control over the collection, storage, use, and sharing of their data,  the Christian Science Monitor's Passcode wrote.  

Although industry and privacy groups have said the draft legislation falls short, they agree that it opens a much-needed conversation on how to provide consumers with more privacy and security. Leading technology companies, meanwhile, have started to offer top-level encryption to consumers, at a time when the world feels its online privacy is being intruded on.  

The agency serves President Obama's adviser on telecommunication policies and the telecommunications industry. The US Census Bureau collected the data in July 2015 NTIA analyzed.  

The NTIA's survey of 45,000 households offers a glimpse into American fears, as well as their effect on economic activity and information sharing. Of all the security and privacy concerns included in the survey, identity theft was the greatest: 63 percent of households said they were worried about having their identities stolen. Forty-five percent of households said they were worried about banking and credit card theft. Twenty-three percent said they were worried about data collection by online services.

Because of these as well as other concerns, 29 percent of households said they avoided conducting financial transactions online, and 26 percent said they avoided both buying goods or services online and posting on social networks.  

"It is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects," reads the report, referring to the freeze on economic activity and posting opinions on social networks that these fears can have.  

The report comes at a time when Americans and Europeans are learning more about the extent to which cyber attacks and data collection compromise their privacy online. In fact, researchers just released data they collected from 70,000 users on the dating website OKCupid without the site's permission.  

The draft Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights require companies, nonprofits, and other organizations to limit data collection and to spell out privacy policies clearly, get informed consent from users, and provide consumers with a way to correct errors in their records, Passcode reported.  

Jules Polonetsky, executive director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, told Passcode that while he didn't expect the bill to gain traction, it should "help launch a conversation focused on more nuanced approaches to addressing business needs and consumer privacy issues."  

Nicole Wong, the former deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration and a Passcode columnist, agreed.   

"What we need today is a framework for a national discussion about privacy regulation, and that is what the White House has given us," she wrote in March 2015.  

Technology companies, such as Apple and WhatsApp, meanwhile, are providing consumers with "military-grade" encryption, wrote John Naughton, a professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, in a Guardian opinion article. Apple's refusal to unlock the San Bernardino killer's iPhone for federal authorities highlighted the level of encryption they provide consumers with. WhatsApp, the messaging service with nearly one billion users, announced it will provide consumers with end-to-end encryption, preventing everyone expect a user receiving or sending a message from reading it.   

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