Online privacy: Americans worried about Facebook, not NSA, poll finds

Internet users are more concerned about hackers, Facebook advertisers, and family members violating their online privacy than they are about the government, according to a new survey.

Pawel Kopczynski/ Reuters/ File
A projection of a text on the face of a woman. Fifty-five percent of Internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government, according to a Pew report released on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … social media sites encourage users to create a digital trail of life events. But a recent survey shows that Americans might be having second thoughts about uploading details of their lives to the Internet.

Internet users say that their pictures, birth dates, e-mail addresses, and cellphone numbers are available online, but what concerns those surveyed the most is the privacy of their e-mails and online searches, two of the items hardest to keep from Internet companies. 

Eighty-six percent of Internet users have taken steps online to remove, or mask their digital footprints – ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their e-mail, according to a Pew Research report released on Thursday. Most Internet users – 59 percent – do not think it is possible to be completely anonymous online.

“Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “Their concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance.”

Internet giants' information-harvesting techniques have come under increased public scrutiny in the past few months after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents detailing a large-scale, secret data collection plan, PRISM.

However, the Pew report does not show that Americans are concerned about online government surveillance. Internet users “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,” says Mr. Rainie. 

Thirty-three percent of users wish to avoid hackers, or criminals, followed by 28 percent of users who want to avoid advertisers. In comparison, only 5 percent of Internet users reported they wanted to avoid government observation. 

“There is a possibility that our questions were answered the way they were because people were thinking about their day-to-day activities,” says Rainie, in an e-mail.

“Advertisers – or avoiding advertisers – might be a more top-of-mind thought for users because they encounter advertising all the time online and probably have to think about their approach to it. In contrast, government observation just isn’t something that people directly encounter during regular Internet activities," he adds.

However, government surveillance programs, like the NSA's PRISM, would not operate if major Internet companies weren't mining troves of data about their users. The same metadata that tells a social media site what kind of ad to use is the same information that the government accesses to pinpoint national security threats.  

Both Facebook and Google have been entangled in recent lawsuits that accuse the companies of taking advantage of the wealth of consumer data the companies have amassed, and using it to better target their advertising.

Facebook was accused of using approximately 150 million users' images to promote products and services through the Sponsored Stories program, and ended up agreeing to pay $9.5 million to settle the case. Meanwhile, Google is the defendant in an ongoing court case that accuses the company of violating consumers' privacy by accessing their e-mail content to better target advertising. The content of e-mails is considered to be the most sensitive piece of information by consumers, according to the Pew report. 

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