PhotoIf anyone still doubts Americans are concerned about their privacy online, a new Pew Researcher Center study should dispel those doubts. The researchers found that nearly nine in 10 Web users try to remain anonymous online by clearing their cookies and browser histories, encrypting email or using proxy servers.

Pew also found that consumers frequently edit or delete things they've posted in the past, set their browser to disable cookies, avoid websites that asked for their real names and use fictitious names and email addresses.

The report also found that people are more concerned about the amount of data available about them today online than in the past. In July, 50% of Web users said they were concerned about how much information about them was online, up from 33% in September of 2009, Pew found.

Real problems

The researchers said consumers' fears are often based on problems they've experience because others stole their personal information or took advantage of their visibility online. 

It cited these examples:

  • 21% of internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over by someone else without permission.
  • 13% of internet users have experienced trouble in a relationship between them and a family member or a friend because of something the user posted online.
  • 12% of internet users have been stalked or harassed online.
  • 11% of internet users have had important personal information stolen such as their Social Security Number, credit card, or bank account information.
  • 6% of internet users have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.
  • 6% of internet users have had their reputation damaged because of something that happened online.
  • 4% of internet users have been led into physical danger because of something that happened online.
  • 1% of internet users have lost a job opportunity or educational opportunity because of something they posted online or someone posted about them.

Some 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online and 24% believe current laws provide reasonable protections.

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Concern is growing

Consumers' concerns about their privacy have been growing steadily in recent years. Pew found that 50% of those surveyed say they are worried about the amount of personal information about them that is online — a figure that has jumped from 33% who expressed such worry in 2009.  

Another study, this one conducted by advertising agency Omnicom's Annalect, also found consumers increasingly concerned. The study found 57% of web users in July were "concerned" or "very concerned" about their online privacy, up from 48% in June. The jump was attributed to the news that the NSA has been collecting metadata about U.S. citizens for years.

"People would like control over their information, saying in many cases it is very important to them that only they or the people they authorize should be given access to such things as the content of their emails, the people to whom they are sending emails, the place where they are when they are online, and the content of the files they download," the Pew researchers said.

Companies try to duck

The rising tide of consumer resistance, often bordering on outrage, doesn't seem to be making an impression on companies, which are trying to find ways to hide their surveillance activities rather than cutting back on them.

After conducting its study that found 57% of consumers concerned about their online privacy, Annalect, a market research company, said it would "continue to evolve how we measure and triangulate consumer consumption patterns."

Adam Gitlin, global managing director for digital analytics at Annalect's data group, told Online Media Daily his company was "looking at all possibilities" for tracking people without cookies.

Some industry executives have been talking about "device fingerprinting," a method of tracking people by keeping track of the characteristics associated with their computers. 


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