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On-line privacy: railing against the accepted


By: Scott Bradner


I frequently use this column to rail against threats to the privacy of Internet users, both from government and the private sector.  (For example, last week's column ("Telling Google and others to do less evil"  I just found a survey ( published late last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that  reports that people are coming to support, or at last not object too strongly to, some types of spying.


The report is titled "Digital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency."  The summary of findings section of the report includes the survey result that 60% of Internet users (or at least the survey respondents) find information about themselves on-line, 60 % (maybe not the same 60 %) are not concerned with the amount of information out there and half of teens and a much smaller percentage of adults have posted profiles to Internet social sites (most teens do restrict access to their profile in some way).  But, to me some of the more interesting results did not make it into the summary.


I found the section on "The Changing Nature of Personal Information" a bit surprising and somewhat depressing.  For example a 1994 Harris Interactive survey found that 65% of Americans said it was "extremely important" that they not be monitored at work - the current survey, using a similar question, finds that this has dropped to 28%.  At the same time another Pew survey found that 85% of adults feel that it is "very important" that they be able to control who will get information about them and almost 60% have refused to provide some information when they thought that it was not needed or was too personal.  The report does have a good discussion of the kind of digital footprints each of us leave behind as we wander through the Internet.  But the discussion misses the vast database Google, Yahoo etc have on each of use and only focuses on the info that pops up when you do a Google search.  People seem willing for their boss to watch over their shoulder, do not notice, or at least Pew did not ask about, the data Google et al are compiling about our every whim and yet feel that its important to have a sense of control.  A mixed message at best.


The survey includes a section on people searching for information about themselves on the Internet   -- 47% of the Pew respondents do.  When they do, Pew reports that most of them find what they expected to find and almost all say that the information is accurate.  While there have been some horror stories in the press about gossip web sites destroying the employability of some recent college graduates that does not seem to the norm.  (See, for example, - the web page is more than a little over the top but a quick read through some of the text shows it to be very interesting.)  The Pew report notes that only 11% of respondents thought that information about their political party affiliation was on line but fails to mention that many donations to political campaigns now wind up on-line (not all, at least I do not find some I made).


I've only covered a small part of the Pew report, other things like people Googling their dates and a few people trying to limit the on-line info about them are also discussed among a number of other topics. 


It's a good read but I came away more uncomfortable with the state of privacy in today's world than comfortable.  Maybe that is the message that Pew meant to convey. 


disclaimer: I expect that Harvard was not one of the Pew respondents, but even if it was the raw data is confidential (I assume) and I could not find out its opinions, thus the above must reflect my thoughts.