We Fear for Our Online Privacy, But Do Little to Protect It

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We are all concerned about online privacy, but not enough to do much about it, apparently. Americans are more afraid of having their online privacy violated in some way than they are about declaring bankruptcy or losing their jobs, according to a new survey from Opera Software and market-research company YouGov that was released today to coincide with Data Privacy Day. But despite these fears, fewer than two-thirds of those surveyed used safe passwords, only about half deleted their browsing history, and just 15 percent used software that made it difficult for websites to collect personal information. Which raises the question: as more web browsers like Firefox and IE9 are offering “do not track” options for users, will anyone actually use them?

The Opera and YouGov survey found that 25 percent of Americans worry about having their online privacy violated, compared with 23 percent who are afraid of having to declare bankruptcy and 22 percent who are afraid of losing their jobs. The study also surveyed opinions in Japan and Russia, and Internet fraud as a result of privacy breaches was in the top four fears in each country, with between 22 and 29 percent agreement (fear of being injured in a car accident was the number one concern in Japan and the U.S., while 40 percent of Russians said they were worried about relationship problems).

In terms of who Americans are concerned about when it comes to their personal privacy online, the survey found that 35 percent of respondents were worried about the government collecting information about them, while just 15 percent were concerned about the data that social networks collect. Sixteen percent said they weren’t worried about anyone getting information about them online. A majority of respondents (54 percent) agreed that they should be responsible for protecting their own privacy online, while just 25 percent believed that this was the responsibility of web companies.

Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, and Microsoft have both said that they support a “do not track” feature that would allow users to turn off data tracking by websites and services via a setting in their browser. Mozilla’s head of global privacy and public policy, Alex Fowler, wrote about the company’s proposal to support this idea and how it might work earlier this week. Google has also launched a “keep my opt-outs” setting extension for its Chrome browser that is designed to do something similar.

But as pointed out by privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian, who has been involved in helping create and promote the idea of a “do not track” standard, many of these features will not be of much use unless sites and software support them — and unless advertisers and others who collect such information are effectively forced to abide by a user’s choice. That, Soghoian says, is going to take some kind of action from the Federal Trade Commission or other government agency that can compel companies to adhere to those standards, something the FTC said in a recent draft report on online privacy that it is prepared to do. How it plans to do that remains to be seen.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Batikart

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