How Confident Are You That You Are Safe Online?

Padlock computer online shopping with security camera
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The disturbing knowledge that many Americans are being scrutinized online was brought to the world's attention by Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who leaked a wide variety of documents online. These documents detailed all sorts of privacy infringements, anything from tracking phone calls to monitoring Web traffic, and made many people reevaluate how private their Web usage really was. 

A new study from the Pew Research Center asked a number of American citizens how they feel about online privacy in the aftermath of these shocking findings. In this article, we'll briefly go through the study's findings, and discuss what you can do personally to make sure that your online privacy is never compromised. 

Should you change your habits online? Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. Those that have heard something actually took steps to make themselves more secure: 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

I know it's important, but I'm not sure what to do! Many people who answered this survey were definitely aware of the privacy issues, but weren't sure how to go about making themselves more secure online. 

One potential reason some had not yet changed their behaviors is that 54% believe it would be “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find tools and strategies that would help them be more private online and in using their cell phones. Still, notable numbers of citizens say they have not adopted or even considered some of the more commonly available tools that can be used to make online communications and activities more private:

  • 53% have not adopted or considered using a search engine that does not keep track of a user’s search history and another 13% do not know about these tools. One of the most popular of these search engines is DuckDuckGo, which advertises it does not keep track of user searches. 
  • 43% have not adopted or considered adding privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins and another 31% do not know such plug-ins. Updating your browser privacy is very simple; check out How to Clear Google Searches and What are Browser Cookies? to get started.
  • 41% have not adopted or considered using proxy servers that can help them avoid surveillance and another 33% do not know about this. What are proxy servers? Find out more here: What is a Proxy Server? 
  • 40% have not adopted or considered using anonymity software such as Tor and another 39% do not know about what that is. Learn more about using the Web anonymously: How to Be Anonymous Online. 

Is someone really watching what we do online? Yes: Overall, 52% describe themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications, compared with 46% who describe themselves as “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned” about the surveillance. When asked about more specific areas of concern over their own communications and online activities, respondents expressed somewhat lower levels of concern about electronic surveillance in various parts of their digital lives:

  • 39% describe themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on search engines.
  • 38% say they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on their email messages.
  • 37% express concern about government monitoring of their activity on their cell phone.
  • 31% are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • 29% say they are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on their mobile apps.

What can you do to protect yourself online? Believe it or not, there's actually quite a bit to make sure that your online activities are completely safe and secure. The following resources can help you greatly increase your privacy when you access the Web:

Privacy on the Web: How to Make It A Priority: Is privacy online a priority for you? If it's not, it should be. Learn how you can make your time on the Web more secure.

Eight Ways You Can Hide Your Identity Online: Don't compromise your safety - learn how to hide your online identity and surf anonymously on the Web.