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1 in 5 Americans Have Had an Email, Social Account Compromised

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Growing numbers of Internet users say they worried about the amount of their personal information that is online, and most have at least tried to cover their digital tracks, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Fully 50% of Internet users told researchers in the survey, taken during July, that they are concerned about their digital footprint, up dramatically from 2009, when only 33% said they were worried.

“There is consistent evidence that the level of concern is growing,” the report says. “It has increased among all groups, and is especially pronounced among Internet users ages 65 and older and those living in households earning less than $30,000.”

The findings seem to be a reversal for consumers. From 2006 to 2009, concern about the digital breadcrumbs dropped from 40% to 33%, according to Pew.

“Maybe back then people were excited about social networks and sharing, but clearly the pendulum has swung the other way. This is the highest number we’ve ever recorded,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and an author of a report on the survey findings.

The Dark Side of the Internet

The survey found a stunning number of Internet users — 1 in 5 — have suffered an e-mail or social media account hijacking, and 1 in 8 adults said they’d been stalked or harassed online. Roughly the same number said they have had their Social Security number or banking information stolen.

Non-financial identity theft, such as a Facebook or e-mail account takeover, might sound less serious than having a credit card account number stolen, but a bout of Facebook or Twitter hijacking can be much more difficult to fix, and it also can lead to numerous other hassles. Facebook impersonations often lead to convincing fraud attempts, for example. In one infamous case last year, the Twitter account belonging to the Associated Press was hacked and fake Tweets sent, causing temporary stock market chaos. (If you’re worried you may become an identity theft victim, you can monitor your credit for free using the free Credit Report Card.)

The concerns have driven Net users to take steps to preserve their anonymity — 86% said they had deleted cookies, removed online posts, used fake personas or taken other measures to hide their breadcrumbs. Website publishers should take note; 36% os participants said they’d declined to use a website because it required them to enter their real name.

Roughly 1 in 5 said they took these steps to avoid certain family members or former lovers, but 28% said they were trying to hide from advertisers — almost the same number (33%) who said they were trying to hide from hackers.

Still, they are realistic about the impact of such steps. A firm majority (59%) said it was not possible to be anonymous online; 66% said U.S. laws are “not good enough” to protect Americans’ privacy. Of note to politicians — support for stronger privacy laws is a remarkably bi-partisan issue. Tea Party supporters, conservative Republicans, self-described moderates and liberal Democrats all gave Pew similar responses.

“Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible,” Rainie said. “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.”

Oversharers Also Concerned

The survey was taken not long after dramatic revelations by Edward Snowden detailing electronic surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency, but Rainie said there didn’t appear to be much of an NSA effect in the survey. Only 5% of those surveyed said they’d take steps to hide digital tracks from the government.

In a seeming contradiction, users who had shared the most personal information about themselves online were also more likely to take steps to hide it. Sara Kiesler, another report author and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said this actually makes sense. Privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition to this group, she argues.

“Our team’s biggest surprise was discovering that many Internet users have tried to conceal their identity or their communications from others,” Kiesler said. Carnegie-Mellon helped fund the research. “It’s not just a small coterie of hackers. Almost everyone has taken some action to avoid surveillance. And despite their knowing that anonymity is virtually impossible, most Internet users think they should be able to avoid surveillance online — they think they should have a right to anonymity for certain things, like hiding posts from certain people or groups.”

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