Privacy & Security | Research

'Almost Everyone' Actively Trying To Avoid Surveillance Online

Based on the findings of a new survey from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, the vast majority of Americans are actively taking steps to avoid online surveillance by the government or other organizations or individuals.

The report, "Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online," found that 86 percent of American adults have taken steps to avoid detection online and that 55 percent of them do it in order to avoid detection by "specific people, organizations, or the government." Sixty-eight percent reported they do not think their privacy is adequately protected by law (a figure that transcends party affiliation or liberal/libertarian/conservative bias). And 59 percent said they should be allowed to use the Internet completely anonymously.

Among the tactics used to conceal their identities or cover their tracks, survey participants reported:

  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) clear their cookies and browser history;
  • 41 percent disable cookies;
  • 14 percent encrypt e-mail;
  • 14 percent use VPNs or the Tor network to conceal their real IP addresses;
  • On average, respondents reported using three or four different methods to avoid detection;

"Our team's biggest surprise was discovering that many Internet users have tried to conceal their identity or their communications from others," said Sara Kiesler, an author of the report and the Hillman professor of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, in a statement released to coincide with the report. "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."

The majority of Internet users surveyed (59 percent) indicated they do not think it's possible to be completely anonymous online. Thirty-seven percent do think it's possible to be completely anonymous online.

"Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project and an author of a report, also in a prepared statement. "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."

Internet users are feeling the consequences of privacy breaches. More than a fifth (21 percent) have had one of their e-mail or social network accounts hijacked or compromised, while 10 percent have had sensitive information compromised six percent reported having their reputations harmed over something that happened online.

One percent reported having lost an educational opportunity or a job opportunity owing to something they posted or something another person posted about them online.

Other findings include:

  • Half of those surveyed said they worry about too much of their information being online, up from a third in 2009;
  • Those with higher educational attainment are more likely to actively conceal their identities online;
  • Women (55 percent) are more likely than men (43 percent) to use their real names when posting online;
  • A small minority reports that they hide their activities from the government (5 percent) or law enforcement (4 percent);
  • The plurality of users hide their activities from "hackers or criminals" (33 percent), followed by advertisers (28 percent), people from their past (19 percent), specific friends (19 percent), family members or romantic partners (14 percent), employers and coworkers (11 percent), and companies that run the sites they visit (6 percent), among others.

The complete report is freely available on Pew Internet's site.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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