Pew: Nearly One-Third Of Americans Hide Information Online

 (iStockphoto)
(iStockphoto)

Almost a third of Americans have taken steps to hide or shield their information online since Edward Snowden publicized National Security Agency surveillance practices.

But as a country, we're deeply divided — nearly 50-50 — over whether to be concerned about massive government surveillance. And while there are signs that privacy is a partisan issue, it's not partisan in the way you might think.

All that is according to the latest privacy study by the Pew Research Center.

Privacy Market Has Grown — To Critical Mass?

Among the Americans who've heard about the NSA revelations (not everyone has — which is a whole other story!), 25 percent say they've changed how they use online technology "a great deal" or "somewhat."

Respondents say things like: "I don't search some things that I might have before" and "Can't joke about stuff that could be taken as a threat."

Sound familiar?

People have changed the privacy settings on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. They've uninstalled mobile apps that are data-moochers. They've used search engines that depart from the norm and do not keep a running tab on every site you visit. And some respondents report taking the dramatic step of talking — face to face, in the physical world — to avoid having a digital trail of communication.

While one-quarter is not the majority, it is eye-grabbing. The Pew study indicates that the niche market for privacy tools may go mainstream. Companies like Wickr and Dstrux offer self-destructing tools for email and social media posts, with the promise of "zero digital footprint." Abine Blur let's you shop online without revealing your personal email and credit card number. These are hardly household names, but that could change.

Tools Are Hard To Get

The problem with privacy tools, as reflected in the Pew study, is that they're hard for the average person to use.

For example, search engines that don't record search history, like DuckDuckGo, have been around for years. But only 10 percent of respondents say they've used one, and 13 percent don't know these browsers exist.

While people say they'd like to do more, they also say things like: "I do not feel expert enough to know what to do to protect myself, and to know that the protection chosen is effective. Technology changes very fast."

Clearly there's a lot of work for tech entrepreneurs to do, in terms of marketing their goods and designing them to be more user-friendly.

What Kind Of Partisan Issue Is This?

Politically, we are a nation divided over the government's blanket surveillance of American citizens. Just over half of respondents say they're concerned. Just under half say: not really.

But here's an interesting tidbit: Republicans and those who lean Republican are more likely than those in the Democrats camp to say they are losing confidence that surveillance programs serve the public interest (70 percent vs. 55 percent).

This could reflect feelings about President Obama, or a more enduring libertarian streak in the GOP.

It'll be interesting to see how public sentiment shapes up in one emerging debate: While the public and private sectors are both amassing stockpiles of data on us, they are starting to butt heads over encryption. Companies like Yahoo want to encrypt more, to regain consumer trust; and government officials say that gets in the way of intelligence-gathering.

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