In case you haven’t heard, online privacy is getting very complicated and Internet users are worried.  It’s no wonder given all the activity in the industry, with daily stories on stolen identities and data breaches, companies you’ve never even heard of collecting information about you and even mobile game applications knowing about your physical whereabouts. (Let’s not even get into the recent NSA PRISM disclosures!)  So different than in the 1990s when online privacy was pretty much an “Opt-in” or “Opt Out” proposition or people didn’t even know to worry about it.  Today, things are much more complex.  Pew Research Center’s recently published survey, Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online, confirms that most users want control over their online personal information but fear that this is no longer possible. 

It isn’t just government surveillance that people are worried about; in fact, users are more intent on masking their personal information–things like email and download content, contacts and their online presence–from hackers and advertisers to even friends and family members.  How hard are they trying to hide?  Well, the study reports that 64 percent of users clear their browser history or disable cookies while 14 percent have resorted to setting up anonymous browsing capabilities.  And, 13 percent actively misidentify themselves in their efforts to “hide.”  It’s not that individuals want to be completely hidden online, they just want to decide when they are unseen based on  what kind of data is at issue, who might be watching, and what they think might happen if they don’t hide.  Not surprisingly, the younger and more sophisticated users are more likely to “bounce” back and forth between disclosing who they are and remaining anonymous depending on what they are doing online.

Personal photos top the list of key pieces of personal information users know are available online.  Next come birthdates, phone numbers (both cell and home), home addresses and group affiliations.  Over one third of online users avoid websites that ask for their name, and 41 percent have deleted or modified a prior posting.

Perhaps users are more aware of what information about them is floating around out there in cyberspace because cybersecurity is having a hard time keeping up with the sophisticated methods of hackers.  21 percent of online adults report having had an email or social media account hijacked and 11 percent having had vital information like Social Security numbers, bank account data, or credit cards stolen.  With all this complexity and increasing numbers of identity theft, it is not surprising then that 68 percent of those surveyed do not believe current laws are sufficient to protect individual online privacy.  So what’s to be done?  Industry groups are racing to pull together self-regulatory measures and codes of conduct in an effort to avert what they fear could be cumbersome and overreaching legislation and regulations in both the security and privacy spheres—whether or not they succeed in time remains to be seen.  And, of course, the government is keeping a careful watch over the whole issue (pun intended)!