U.S. citizens are increasingly worried about their privacy while surfing online and would like Internet privacy guarantees, even though they are currently doing little themselves to protect their Internet identities, according to a study released in August by the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The survey, conducted via telephone and e-mail interviews from May 19 to June 21, asked 2,117 Americans -- 1,017 of whom are Internet users -- their views on trust and privacy online, the organization said in a statement.
Though 60 percent of those polled were "very concerned" about protecting their privacy online, only a limited number of those people currently used available tools for protecting their online identity, according to the Pew study. When it came to the fairly simple option of providing false information to Web sites, such as incorrect names or addresses, only 24 percent of those polled said they had done so.
Fifty-six percent of those polled did not know that cookies are the primary online tracking tool, and only 10 percent had set their browsers to reject cookies as a way to protect their privacy. Furthermore, just 9 percent have used encryption in order to scramble their e-mail and 5 percent have taken advantage of "anonymizing" software which hides a computer's identity from Web sites.
Despite their lack of knowledge about how to protect their privacy online, 54 percent of online users and 64 percent of those polled who are not currently online want stronger online protections. African-Americans (72 percent polled), users between the ages of 50 and 64 (67 percent polled) and women (62 percent polled) in particular are concerned about online privacy.
People with fewer than three years experience using the Internet wanted guaranteed protection at a rate of 62 percent while 50 percent of those polled with more than three years experience logging on wanted increased privacy, according to the study.
The study indicated that users would like the option of giving a Web site personal information, and 71 percent believe that people who use Web sites should have the most say over how Internet companies track users' activities.
Eighty-one percent felt that rules should be put in place to govern tracking personal information online but those same people were divided on who would do the best job of enforcing those rules: 50 percent of the U.S. citizens already online thought that Internet users themselves would do the best policing job, 24 percent thought the U.S. federal government would do the best job and 18 believed Internet companies could best handle the job of policing themselves.
When it came unpleasant online experiences, 25 percent of the Internet users polled actually had their computers infected by an email virus, and 28 percent claimed to have received offensive e-mail from a stranger. Four percent said they have felt threatened online and 3 percent said they had their credit card information stolen over the Internet. In fact, survey respondents were nearly equally concerned about credit card fraud over the Internet (54 percent) and over the telephone (56 percent).
According to the study, within the past five years, users have grown considerably more comfortable using their credit cards to make purchases online: 48 percent in 2000 said they'd done so compared to 8 percent in 1995.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a nonprofit initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation says it has invested over $250 million in 206 nonproffit organizations in 1999, and has $4.9 billion in assets.
The full study can be found online.
- IDG New Service