Internet users long for privacy, but pessimistic they can achieve it

A growing number of Americans are concerned about the amount of personal information they're divulging online, a new poll released today shows.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found internet users would like to be anonymous but many don't think it's possible.

In the survey, 86 percent of internet users said they've tried to obscure their digital footprint; about 55 percent have tried to keep their personal information out of view of corporations, specific people or the government.

"Most of the research that's been done so far has depicted people as a little bit unaware or not taking precautions," said Carnegie Mellon University Professor Sara Kiesler, who co-authored the report. "This study seems to show that people are concerned, and that they have tried to cover their tracks."

But Kiesler said many of the methods people use to restrict access to their online information -- like clearing their browser histories or deleting online posts they made in the past -- don't effectively preserve their privacy.

"When people are putting pictures of themselves out there, if they knew a lot they would know facial recognition software and analyses of their relationships and connections to public records and even DNA traces could identify them when they do that," Kiesler said.

MPR News spoke with some Minnesotans from our Public Insight Network who responded to a query on online privacy.

Eric Engwall of Lakeville said he takes some precautions with his online accounts, but doesn't worry overly about online privacy.

"I restrict everything to friends, as much as possible -- and keeping up to date on Facebook changes with regards to privacy settings is a big job," Engwall said. "I don't want to be foolish about it, but again I'm not paranoid about it either."

About 68 percent of those polled by Pew said the government's privacy laws are inadequate. Engwall said most of the leaks of personal information seem to happen at big corporations but that he wouldn't support more government regulations mandating privacy standards for companies.

"If [companies] are found to be negligent in taking care of my private information, people are going to file lawsuits," Engwall said. "That's probably a bigger motivation for them to be careful and concerned about how they store customer information."

Despite recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting vast amounts of data on citizens, the survey also found that Americans aren't very concerned about government snooping. About 38 percent of respondents were most concerned about hiding their information from hackers or criminals, while only 5 percent were trying to conceal personal information from the government.

Tony Carlisle of Burnsville said he's OK trading some privacy for national security.

"Criminals, terrorists, they have an immense amount of resources, it doesn't make sense for the government not to fight them with the same or greater amount of resources," Carlisle said. "I don't feel like I'm not going to get caught in the net of being suspected as a terrorist because I'm not doing anything."

In online activities, Carlisle looks at online personal information as a commodity that can be traded for convenience.

"I've got a bunch of apps on my phone that give me a lot of information, but I have to give up something like my location for the benefit of that app, and I don't mind doing that," Carlisle said. "But if someone doesn't want the GPS to help them navigate across the city then they'll preserve that privacy of where they are."

But Carlisle said it's possible that companies can cross the line, perhaps by violating medical privacy, perhaps through tracking purchases. Last year, the New York Times revealed that Target used a teenager's purchases to predict that she was pregnant. The company sent coupons to her for maternity clothing and nursery furniture before her father discovered.

"There's no way to control that once you make the agreement to give up some of that privacy," Carlisle said. "Just staying offline is about the only way to avoid it."

The Pew survey also found that 55 percent of Americans 18 to 29 years old had been harassed, had online accounts hacked or had some other negative online experience.

Stacey De La Luna of Plymouth said she takes great pains to restrict the personal information her teenage children put online.

"I'm very protective, not because I don't have a lot of faith in them but because I think there's such naivete," De La Luna said. "I remember being young and impulsive and, well, may I say, just stupid -- and you get yourself in trouble."

De La Luna said her daughter's identity was used to create an online page attacking a fellow student last year. The sixth grader was facing criminal charges and suspension from school.

"The only way we were able to prove it wasn't her was that all the activity had been done via a cell phone during school hours, and my daughter doesn't have a cell phone," De La Luna said. "They were able to identify who exactly had done the damage, but by then her reputation was pretty sullied."

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