For Internet users who have ever felt uneasy filling out personal information online or wondered how advertisers know what they're shopping for, senior researcher Mary Madden has a message: You are not alone.
In Madden's new study from the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans have varied concerns about online security, especially in light of last year's NSA spying scandal.
Key findings in the study include that 91 percent of Americans feel consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used and 80 percent said Americans should be concerned about the government monitoring their phone and online communications. In the study, 81 percent say they feel insecure using social media to share personal information — even when sharing information with people or organizations they trust.
"Across all of our questions about the security of core communications channels and sensitivity of information, those who have heard more about government monitoring programs were more likely to say 'I feel not at all secure,' " Madden said.
What the data shows more than anything is that Americans' ideas about online security and trust is more complex than ever — something Madden thinks will change the conversation about privacy for good.
"The conversations around privacy tend to be binary — either care about it or they don’t — and there seems to be an assumption that it can be boiled down to that," Madden said. "But this data shows that privacy isn't this monolithic concept and the truth is that it's extremely varied."
It's not just the government looking over America's digital shoulder. UC Berkeley law professor Chris Hoofnagle and University of Washington economist Jan Whittington says the issue of privacy also gets blurred in online commerce.
"Companies can confuse the user by promoting 'trust' or brand awareness instead of real privacy protections," Hoofnagle said.
Yet Americans seem torn about what should be done about advertising that seems to follow every search, site visit and purchase. The Pew study found that 64 percent of respondents said the government should monitor what online advertisers do with private information, while 34 percent were against the government involvement. Whittington said that could be because Americans are still getting used to the rules in a new, digital marketplace.
"We have a history of being able to walk into stores and believe that our choices aren’t being tracked," Whittington said. "Shopping online is much more susceptible to being traced. It's almost as if they’re following our eyes across the shelves, regardless of which industry they’re in."
What to do
No matter how worried Americans are about their security online, it's not realistic for everyone to disconnect. That's part of the problem, said Hoofnagle, because there aren't sufficient legal protections for newer technology and online activity, yet many consider them a necessity.
"There is a gap between what consumers want and what the market provides," Hoofnagle said. "[In the Pew data] there is an interesting relationship between the age of the technology and the legal protections provided. The phone, both wireline and wireless, are most trusted, but they are also most protected both technically and legally."
For those intrepid users who want an alternative, private online experience? Those experiences are hard to find, Whittington said.
"The Internet market for services or information is prone to a concentration of providers that can create a kind of monopoly," Whittington said. "In that environment, it can be hard to unseat an established, dominant competitor."
That's why, when an Internet user wants to learn something quickly, the colloquial phrase is to "Google it," not "Duck Duck Go it."
Duck Duck Go is a search engine service built on the idea that search activity should be kept private (the company even jokingly pixelates photos of its executive staff on its website). While the service has been available since 2007, it's hard for most Americans to think about a search engine divorced from Google or Bing, though privacy concerns have brought Duck Duck Go more into the spotlight.
For its 10th anniversary, Mozilla rolled out a Firefox update this week that includes a "forget" button to wipe search history and added Duck Duck Go to its search options. That's a step in the right direction for people who can't live offline all the time.
"We’re now at the point where social media has been integrated into daily life, but also, from social perspective, people are deeply invested in these networks," Madden said. "There are constant trade-offs being made."
Madden said more people want to know how to protect themselves online — 61 percent of survey respondents said they'd like to do more, while just 37 percent said they do enough to protect themselves already.
What does protection mean? Whittington said it might help to start thinking about the black-market value of personal identity information, especially medical information, and to be careful who knows it.
"Identity theft and medical identity theft have both been going up," Whittington said. "It all suggests that there are people who have a financial interest in obtaining this information."
People looking for a clean slate, to start over or to get offline completely, should start by deleting whatGizmodo calls "the Big Four" — Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts — since those services gather the most personal information. Once those accounts are purged, users can contract services like Just Delete Me or Knowem to help clean up commenter forums or other sites users might have forgotten about.
For those who need or want an online presence, blocking location data, tracking and third-party cookies is a great way to start, PC World suggests. Beyond that, users can add browser extensions such asGhostery or Panopticlick, which can help hide user browser identity from servers and share how much information the browser is giving away.
Until policy forces privacy restrictions online or the Internet becomes more transparent, it's all Internet users for themselves. If it's personal, think twice before sharing it publicly, Whittington said.
"The Snowden affair has given people pause about the power of digital technology to efficiently store enormous amounts of information about people," Whittington said. "If you can store it, you can cost effectively move it, and if you can do that, you can cost-effectively disclose it. It should give people pause."