In light of the ongoing revelations regarding Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance, a 2013 Pew Research Internet Project poll shows that awareness of privacy has increased exponentially in the United States.
Pew Research’s study revealed that a remarkable 86% of U.S. internet users have “taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints” and that 59% believe that “people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously.” The most common steps that people take to be less visible online include clearing cookies and browser history, deleting or editing something written in the past, disabling or turning off cookies on a browser, using temporary usernames and e-mail addresses, masking identities and using services that allow users to browse the web anonymously.
The study shows that users have a variety of motivations for undertaking measures to mask their identities online, including concern over hackers, advertisers, family members, employers, and the government. Interestingly, the study reports that users are also aware that there is considerable information available about them online, including photos, birth dates, e-mail address, employers, home addresses, and telephone numbers. Users also have different levels of concern about what particular types of information are available about themselves online with 68% of users stating that it was “very important” to control the content of their e-mails, 55% the content of files downloaded, and 46% the identity of the websites that they browsed. As the report states, “[c]learly, key communications and content are relatively precious to internet users,” particularly for those aged 30-49.
The study concluded that “[i]n word and deed, most Americans would like the ability to be anonymous and untracked online at least every once in a while.” Indeed, the number of users who are worried about the amount of information that is available about them has gone up from 33% in 2009 to 50% in 2013.
When asked whether “current privacy laws provide reasonable protections for people’s privacy on their online activities,” 66% believed laws were “not good enough.” Although the study did not ask questions directed to the Snowden revelations, another poll found that 60% of Americans value privacy over anti-terror protections.
The privacy concerns that are revealed in the Pew Research study have not yet produced new laws at the federal level, but they have done so in California and other states. Among the privacy measures recently signed into law by Governor Brown is Senate Bill 828 which prohibits the state of California from providing “material support, participation, or assistance in response to a request from a federal agency or an employee of a federal agency to collect the electronically stored information or metadata of any person if the state has actual knowledge that the request constitutes an illegal or unconstitutional collection of electronically stored information or metadata.” Although California’s new law is unlikely to prevent the collection of metadata by agencies such as the NSA, it is a sign that public concerns about online privacy are unlikely to vanish any time in the near future.