November 12, 2014

Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era

Most Would Like to Do More to Protect their Personal Information Online

Six in ten adults feel as though they “would like to do more” to protect the privacy of their personal information online

When asked if they feel as though their own efforts to protect the privacy of their personal information online are sufficient, 61% say they feel as though they “would like to do more,” while 37% say they “already do enough.”

Men and women and adults of all ages are equally likely to say they would like to do more to protect the privacy of their personal information online. However, those with the lowest levels of education are more likely to express confidence in their efforts while those who are college educated feel as though they could do more.

Mobile internet users are significantly more likely than non-mobile internet users to say that they feel as though they “would like to do more” to protect the privacy of their personal information online (67% vs. 52%).

Among those who have used a search engine to check up on their own digital footprints, 66% say that they would like to do more, compared with just 53% of those who have not searched for results connected to their name online.

Similarly, social media users express a greater desire to take additional steps when compared with non-users (66% vs. 55%).

Content creators employ multiple strategies for managing their identity when posting online

Strategies for self-presentation online vary by ageOne of the ways that people cope with the challenges of managing their privacy online is to employ multiple strategies for managing identity and reputation across different networks and transactions online. As previous findings from the Pew Research Internet Project have suggested, users bounce back and forth between different levels of disclosure depending on the context. This survey also finds that when people post comments, questions or other information, they do so using a range of identifiers—using a screen name, using their actual name, as well as doing so anonymously.

Among all adults:

  • 59% have posted comments, questions or other information online using a user name or screen name that people associate with them
  • 55% have done so using their real name
  • 42% have done so anonymously

Younger adults are generally more likely to post content online when compared with older adults, and these younger users also tend to post under a wide range of identifiers. This is especially true when it comes to screen names or user names—some 82% of 18-29 year olds have posted content online using some type of screen name that people associate with them.

Along with younger adults, college graduates are more likely to post content online using a dedicated screen name or user name (69% have done so) than are those who have attended but not graduated from college (57%) or those who have not attended college (54%). And those with at least some college experience, or an annual household income of $50,000 and up, are more likely to post anonymously online than are those with lower levels of income or education.

In addition, social networking site users are more likely than non-SNS users to post content using each of these identifiers—using their real names (70% vs. 30%), a screen name that people associate with them (74% vs. 34%), as well as anonymously (48% vs. 31%).

Few adults think it is “easy” for them to be anonymous online

Those who are aware of their own digital footprints more pessimistic about ease of anonymity onlineJust 24% of adults “agree” (20%) or “strongly agree” (3%) with the statement: “It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online.” By contrast, 74% “disagree” (52%) or “strongly disagree” (22%) that it is easy for them to be anonymous.

Those who have heard a lot about government collection of personal information were more likely than those less aware to “strongly disagree” that it is easy for them to be anonymous online (30% vs. 16%). Likewise, those who have searched for themselves online are less confident about the ease with which one can be anonymous. A quarter “strongly disagree” that it is easy, compared with 16% of those who have not searched for themselves online.

Nearly nine in ten adults agree that if inaccurate information was posted about them online, it would be very difficult to remove

Fully 88% of adults “agree” (49%) or “strongly agree” (39%) that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online. Just 9% “disagree” and 1% “strongly disagree” that it would be very difficult to remove.

Even those that think their privacy is well-protected fear the possibility that they would not be able to correct inaccurate information. A third (31%) of those who say they do enough to protect their privacy “strongly agree” that it would be difficult to remove inaccurate information, and another 53% “agree.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who feel as though they could do more to protect their privacy are more likely to “strongly agree” that removing inaccurate information would be difficult. But overall, these two groups show relatively similar levels of concern.

Yet, relatively few say they have had any bad experiences because embarrassing or inaccurate information was posted about them online

About one in ten (11%) of adults say they have had bad experiences due to embarrassing or inaccurate information that was posted about them on the internet, while 87% say this has never happened to them. Adults ages 65 and older are less likely to have had a negative experience like this; for instance, just 2% report having a bad experience due to embarrassing or inaccurate information, while 16% of young adults ages 18-29 report this.

There are no notable variations between men and women or adults across income groups.18 Variations by education are not consistent enough to suggest a clear pattern.

Mobile internet users (13%) are more likely than non-mobile internet users (7%) to report bad experiences. Similarly, social media users (14%) have a greater tendency to report bad experiences than non-users (6%). Those who have searched for results connected to their name online, are also considerably more likely to say they have had bad experiences (16% vs. 2%).

16% of adults say they have asked someone to remove or correct information about them that was posted online

Young adults most likely to have asked someone to correct or remove info about them onlineOne in six adults have asked someone to remove or correct some kind of information—including things like photos or videos—that was posted about them on the internet. While men and women are equally likely to say they have asked someone to remove information, experiences vary considerably by age. Nearly one in three (32%) of young adults say they have asked someone to remove or correct information about them that was posted online, compared with just 17% of those 30-49, 12% of those 50-64 and 2% of those ages 65 and older.

Among social media users, 21% have asked for something to be taken down or corrected, compared with 9% of adults who do not use social media. Mobile internet users, who also tend to be younger, are more likely than non-mobile users to say they have asked for something to be removed (22% vs. 7%).

Those who have searched for information about themselves online were almost four times as likely to say they have requested a correction or takedown of information when compared those who have not checked up on their digital footprints (23% vs. 6%).

Photos and videos are the most common types of information that people request to be removed or corrected

There is a wide range of material that people request to have changed or taken down, but the most common requests involve images and informal written material, rather than official records or statements. Among adults who have asked someone to remove or correct material about them online:

  • 65% have asked that a photo or video be removed or corrected.
  • 39% have asked that written material like a comment or blog posting be removed or corrected.
  • 13% have asked that something else, such as a court record or financial statement be removed or corrected.

Work-related self-presentation online by education24% of employed adults say their employer has rules or guidelines about how they present themselves online

One in four (24%) employed Americans say that their employer has rules or guidelines about how they are allowed to present themselves online (such as what they can post or what information they are allowed to share about themselves). One in ten employed Americans (11%) say that their job requires them to promote themselves through social media or other online tools.

Employees with at least some college experience are more likely than those who have not attended college to say that they need to promote themselves professionally online, and that their employer has policies about how they are allowed to present themselves digitally.

However, few have set up automatic alerts to monitor results connected to their name online

Just 6% of adults have set up some sort of automatic alert to notify them when their name is mentioned in a news story, blog, or elsewhere online. Young adults are somewhat more likely than older adults to have done this—11% of 18-29 year olds have set up alerts—but just 1% of those 65 and older have done so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “self-searchers” (people who have used a search engine to look up what is available about them online) are more likely than non-self-searchers to have done this. But even among this group the practice of setting up automatic alerts is far from universal—some 9% of self-searchers have set up automatic alerts, compared with 2% of non-self-searchers.

Do you assume new acquaintances will search for you online?Many still do not assume that people they meet will search for information about them online

Almost half of respondents (47%) say that they generally assume that people they meet will search for information about them on the internet, while 50% do not. Younger adults under age 50 are more likely to say they assume new acquaintances will search for information about them (53%) than older adults (40%). College graduates (53%) are also more likely to assume people will search for information about them online compared with those who have not attended college (40%). Overall, 54% of adults who have searched for information about themselves online expect others will look for information about them, compared with 36% of those who are not self-searchers.

  1. There were not enough cases in this sample to analyze variations among young women and young men. However, a separate report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project found that young women, ages 18-24, experience certain severe types of online harassment at disproportionately high levels when compared with men of the same age: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/