Skip to main content

America Not As Paranoid As Online Privacy Survey Suggests

The majority of American Internet users don't want the whole world knowing what they do online, according to the results of a Pew Internet and American Life survey released today (Sept. 5).

That's not surprising, but some of the specific assertions in the Pew report are, such as the finding that "86 percent of Internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints — ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email."

Frankly, it'd be amazing if 86 percent of Internet users knew how to create and properly use decent passwords, never mind know how to clear cookies or use encrypted email. 

"We didn't do the best job describing how we compiled that figure," Pew Internet and American Life Project Director Lee Rainie wrote in an email to Tom's Guide. "It was anybody who said 'yes' to ANY of those masking behaviors" (which also included avoiding real names).

Another finding, stating that "55 percent of Internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government," may also be misleading. That percentage seems to be the sum of affirmative responses to several different questions.

MORE: Email Encryption: Worth the Trouble?

A breakdown of the survey questions and responses reveals more mundane and predictable results.

Only 14 percent of self-described Internet users said they had "used a service that allows you to browse the Web anonymously, such as a proxy server, Tor software or a virtual personal network."

Fourteen percent of self-described Internet users responded "yes" to a similar question about whether they'd ever "encrypted [their] communications while [they] used the Internet."

Only 81 percent of the 1,002 adult residents of the continental United States who responded to the survey described themselves as Internet users, reducing that tech-savvy 14 percent to 11 percent of the overall response.

Sixty-four percent of Internet users and smartphone owners (59 percent of all respondents) said they had "cleared cookies and browser history while [they] used the Internet."

That still sounds like a big chunk of the population, but when non-Internet users are factored in, that tech-savvy two-thirds drops to 52 percent, barely more than half.

MORE: 7 Ways to Lock Down Your Online Privacy

"I think it surely is legitimate for you to point out that the majority of those folks took simple steps like clearing their browser history," Rainie told us, "and only a modest share of them were really doing relatively sophisticated things."

Are a lot of those history-clearers simply trying to keep their porn surfing secret? Maybe not — only 14 percent of Internet users admitted to trying to keep "family members or a romantic partner from being able to see what [they had] read, watched or posted online."

Nineteen percent said they'd tried to keep "certain friends" from seeing what they'd done online and 11 percent said they'd tried to keep such things from "an employer, supervisor, or coworkers."

Even smaller percentages admitted trying to skirt laws while online — only 6 percent said they'd tried to keep their activities secret from "companies or people that might want payment for the files [they] download," while only 4 percent said they'd tried to keep law enforcement in the dark.

There is one puzzling response — 41 percent of Internet users said they'd set their browsers to "disable or turn off cookies." That could simply be a measure of how many users know what cookies are at all.

Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.