A majority of U.S. Internet users polled in a recent survey report taking steps to remove or mask their digital footprints online, according to a report from the Pew Research Center's Internet Project and Carnegie Mellon University.
While 86 percent of the Internet users polled said they made some attempt hide what they do online, more than half of the Web users also said they have taken steps to avoid observation by organizations, specific people or the government, according to the survey.
The survey's findings are based on telephone interviews among a sample of 1,002 adults, age 18 or older in July, with 792 Internet users among the respondents.
Other measures taken to cloak online activity were not using websites that asked to disclose a user's real name (36 percent of users polled), using a temporary user name or email address (26 percent), posting comments without revealing who you are (25 percent). Twenty-one percent of the Internet users polled said they had asked others to remove something that was posted about them.
Some Internet users also use public computers to browse and give inaccurate information about themselves, while 14 percent said they at times encrypt email and 14 percent said they use services like virtual networks or proxy servers such as Tor anonymity software, which allow them to browse without being tied to a specific IP address, the survey found.
Beyond general measures taken to go online more or less anonymously, the majority of Internet users polled (55 percent) have tried to avoid observation by specific people or groups. "Hackers, criminals and advertisers are at the top of the list of groups people wish to avoid," Pew said.
But a minority of Web users said they tried to hide their online activities from certain friends, people form their past, family members or partners as well as their employers, coworkers, supervisors, companies, people that might want payment for downloaded files and to a lesser extent the government (5 percent) and law enforcement (4 percent).
However, despite these precautions 21 percent of the online adults polled said they have had an email or social media account hijacked and 11 percent said they have had vital information like Social Security numbers, bank account data, or credit cards stolen.
Discovering that many Internet users have tried to conceal their identity or their communications from others was the biggest surprise to the research team, they said in a news release. Not only hackers, but almost everyone has taken some action to avoid surveillance and despite their knowing that anonymity is virtually impossible, most Internet users think they should be able to avoid surveillance online, they said.
Most U.S. citizens would like to be anonymous and untracked online, at least every once in a while, but many think it is not possible to be completely anonymous online, Pew said. "This reinforces the notion that privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition for internet users. People choose different strategies for different activities, for different content, to mask themselves from different people, at different times in their lives," the researchers wrote.
One of the most revealing contradictions in the results of the survey is that those who have taken steps to try to avoid observation by others and those who have taken more general steps to be anonymous are more likely than others to have personal information posted online, the researchers said.
Internet users surveyed said they have a photo of themselves online (66 percent), while about half of those polled said their birth date was available online. A minority said that their email address, home address, mobile number or political affiliation was available.
A majority of Web users polled, 66 percent, said they think current privacy laws are not good enough to provide reasonable protections for people's privacy on their online activities.
"Interestingly, there are not noteworthy differences in answers to this question associated with political or partisan points of view. Tea Party supporters, conservative Republicans, self-described moderates, and liberal Democrats are not statistically significantly different in their answers," the researchers wrote.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to [email protected]