Internet users are becoming more savvy about keeping their private data safe – but many have already fallen victim to crime and scams, including having their emails or social networks hijacked, a study by the Pew Research Institute’s Internet Project has found.
One in five (21%) of internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over without their permission – and users also admitted to having lost private data or money, and even facing physical danger as a result of events online.
But awareness of risks appears to be rising, according to Pew, although the research institute says, “Most internet users would like to be anonymous online, but many think it is not possible to be completely anonymous.”
Pew said that the responses showed that ordinary internet users seemed to be more concerned with hackers, family members and companies misusing their data, than with government surveillance.
“Most internet users know that key pieces of personal information about them are available online – such as photos and videos of them, their email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, home addresses, and the groups to which they belong,” Pew’s report states. “Growing numbers of internet users (50%) 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.”
Pew’s survey, of 792 internet users, was conducted with Carnegie Mellon University, and found that a large majority (86%) of internet users are taking steps to remove or mask their “digital footprints”, with methods including clearing cookies and encrypting emails. More than half of internet users have taken such steps to avoid observations by specific individuals, organizations, or by the government.
Whether this caution is due to recent headlines about government use of internet data is still unclear. Pew’s study also found that a large percentage of internet users had already fallen victim to crimes or scams that “took advantage of their visibility online,” Pew said.
As well as the 21% who had had emails or social networks compromized, 12% reported being stalked or harrassed online, 11% had had important private information such as Social Security Numbers and banking information stolen.
More worryingly, 6% said they had lost money in online scams – while 6% said they had had their reputation damaged online, and another 4% said they had faced physical danger after an online event.
“Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and an author of a report on the survey findings. “Their concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance. In fact, they are more intent on trying to mask their personal information from hackers, advertisers, friends and family members than they are trying to avoid observation by the government.”
Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security