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US concerns about online privacy present opportunity, experts say

Grant Gross | Nov. 13, 2014
Internet companies will move toward offering more privacy-enhancing tools, some privacy advocates say.

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A new survey saying an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults believe they have lost control over how private companies collect their personal information may be an opportunity in disguise for Web-based companies, some privacy experts said.

Eight in 10 U.S. adults are concerned about the government's monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications, but an even greater percentage believe they have lost control over how private companies collect their personal information, according to a report, released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, based on a survey conducted this past January.

The survey seemed to show conflicted views from Internet users on privacy, however, with Pew noting that U.S. perceptions of privacy are "varied."

A solid majority of the people responding to the survey -- 64 percent -- said they believe the U.S. government should more heavily regulate advertisers and other businesses as a way to protect privacy. But 55 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free."

The survey shows that Internet users' views about privacy and the technology tools they use is "nuanced," said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank focused on privacy issues. Many Internet users have deep concerns about privacy following leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, but they haven't abandoned Internet services, he said.

"The sense of general unease about technology is, in reality, being outweighed by the desire people have to share their cat pictures with each other and to use the tools," he said. "We clearly have a love-hate relationship with the technology."

Only 24 percent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online." More than six in 10 said they would like to do more to protect the privacy of their personal information online.

The survey suggests "that there is both widespread concern about government surveillance among the American public and a lack of confidence in the security of core communications channels," said Mary Madden, senior researcher at Pew's Internet Project. "At the same time, there's an overwhelming sense that consumers have lost control over the way their personal information is collected and used by companies."

While the survey shows a distrust of some online services, the results also present an opportunity for technology companies to offer new tools to give Internet users greater control of their data, Polonetsky said. Internet users seem to want more help in efforts to protect their privacy, he said.

 

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