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Unconcerned About Privacy: The Pew Internet Report on Digital Footprints

Pew_logo The recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project on "Digital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency" presents some interesting statistics and analysis regarding people's awareness and use of digital information about themselves and others on the Internet (their "digital footprints"). The most interesting result, to me, was the revelation that "60% of Internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online."

The Pew study groups U.S. adult Internet users (which I will refer to as "Internet users" from this point on, to simplify exposition and reduce redundancy) into four categories, with respect to their privacy perceptions and actions:

  • Confident Creatives are the smallest of the four groups, comprising 17% of online adults. They say they do not worry about the availability of their online data, and actively upload content, but still take steps to limit their personal information. Young adults are most likely to fall into this group.
  • The Concerned and Careful fret about the personal information available about them online and take steps to proactively limit their own online data. One in five online adults (21%) fall into this category.
  • Despite being anxious about how much information is available about them, members of the Worried by the Wayside group do not actively limit their online information. This group contains 18% of online adults.
  • The Unfazed and Inactive group is the largest of the four groups—43% of online adults fall into this category. They neither worry about their personal information nor take steps to limit the amount of information that can be found out about them online.

This large number of people being unconcerned (not worrying) about privacy - the 60% of Internet users who are "confident creatives" or "unfazed and inactive" - contrasts sharply with previous reports on privacy concerns. One of the things that is interesting about the Pew survey is that it distinguishes between perceptions and actions - who is worried about privacy, and who is actually doing  something about it. It's also interesting to note that 54% of the people who say they are worried about how much information is available about them have not taken any steps to limit the amount of information available about them ... reminding me of people who complain about politicians but don't vote in elections (which I estimate to be at least 36%, based on recent U.S. census figures about voting).

These differences between perceptions and actions with respect to privacy been conflated in earlier studies. For example, a 2003 Harris poll conducted by Dr. Alan Westin used a different three-tier categorization, and was based on sampling all Americans, not just Internet users, and asked about privacy in general, not just online privacy (though both distinctions are eroding over time, e.g., Pew estimates that 71% of the U.S. adult population is now online, i.e., use the Internet, and I suspect most people who are concerned about privacy are most concerned about online, vs. offline, information ... though today's recent Wall Street Journal report on IRS employees "browsing" through tax returns raises some privacy concerns for me):

  • Privacy Fundamentalists: Some people feel very strongly about privacy matters. They tend to feel that they have lost a lot of their privacy and are strongly resistant to any further erosion of it (26% of the American public)
  • Privacy Unconcerned: At the other extreme there are people who have no real concerns about privacy and who have far less anxiety about how other people and organizations are using information about them (10% of the American public)
  • Privacy Pragmatists: who have strong feelings about privacy and are very concerned to protect themselves from the abuse or misuse of their personal information by companies or government agencies (64% of the American public)

There are a number of issues that have been raised about the methodology, labels and conclusions of this poll - Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and Lorrie Faith Cranor provide an in-depth survey of privacy polls conducted for Harris by Dr. Alan Westin - who, interestingly, does not appear to have a homepage - over the past 30 years, including this one (which appears to be the most recent) - but it does suggest very different perceptions (if not actions) with respect to privacy.

I'm not sure how much of the appearance of fewer concerns about privacy reflects actual changes in perceptions or changes in sampling methodologies (or analysis), but it suggests to me that many concerns about privacy concerns have been overstated. And personally, I feel a little less like an outlier now that I've moved from a tiny minority (one of the 10% of privacy unconcerned) to a slightly larger minority (one of the 17% of creative confidents).

In addition to labeling four quadrants of privacy perceptions and actions, the report also distinguishes between an active and passive digital footprints:

  • a passive digital footprint is personal data made accessible online with no deliberate intervention from an individual
  • an active digital footprint is personal data made accessible online through deliberate posting or sharing of information by the user

There are, of course, some grey areas, e.g., data made available through unanticipated effects of privacy policy changes in online social networking services, but I think this distinction offers useful handles for categorizing participation on the web.

There were a number of other interesting findings in the report:

  • 47% of Internet users have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22% five years ago.
    This may be a significant increase, but I'm still surprised at such a low number, which may be primarily (or entirely) a symptom of my standard assumption that most people are like me in most respects. [FWIW, googling Joe McCarthy turns up this blog (Gumption) in the #9 spot ... with 8 of the other 9 entries on page 1 being references to my much more famous (IRL) namesakes, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin whose un-American activities on the ironically named House Committee on Un-American Activities (taking authoritarian actions in the name of anti-communism) gave us the term "McCarthyism", and the other page 1 "hit" a link to the former Hall of Fame baseball player and manager.]
  • 11% of Internet users have a job that requires them to self-promote or market their name online.
    Now, I'm not sure how "requires" means, especially in the age of The Brand You (first articulated over 10 years ago!), but this, too, seems like a surprisingly low number. FWIW, the report also defines public personae as "adult Internet users who have jobs that require self-presentation or self-marketing online" ... a label that strikes me as considerably more arbitrary than the others (e.g., would someone who has a prominent public digital representation of self that is not strictly required by one's job be excluded from this class? I would consider myself in this class, since a large number of my colleagues at Nokia Research Center have no personal or professional web pages (that I'm aware of). Am I a "public personae"?).
  • 68% of public personae have searched for information about themselves online.
    Some quick math suggests that 32% of public personae are therefore not being accountable for some portion of their job descriptions.
  • 25% of public personae have created an SNS profile.
    What?! This may be yet another symptom of the small sample (and/or large assumption) issue noted above, but it much more often the case that I find a LinkedIn profile for someone I can find no other information about than I find other information about someone who does not have a LinkedIn profile. I would consider LinkedIn to be the training wheels for public personae (though increasingly, as I noted with respect to a straw poll conducted at the most recent Nokia Mobile Mashup, Facebook seems to be the new business networking weapon of choice)
  • 35% of Internet users believe their home address is available online.
    So 65% of Internet users are either not aware of WhitePages.com, Anywho reverse lookup, and similar services, or have taken steps to ensure their home address is not available online. I would be inclined the former category is larger than the latter category.
  • 73% of Internet users say their company or employer maintains a web site.
    So 27% of Internet users are either unemployed or work for a company that does not have a web site. It would have been helpful to know what proportion of this group are employed. The most recently updated Pew chart of Internet Demographics shows 32% of U.S. adults age 65+ (retirement and post-retirement age) use the Internet, but it's not clear what proportion of Internet users are in this demographic. I imagine that nearly every employer in the U.S. has a web site by this time.
  • 33% of Internet users have posted some kind of creative content online; 22% have shared something online that they personally created.
    So this means that 11% have only posted creative content that others have created? I know YouTube has a large number of videos that represent potential copyright violations, but it seems unlikely that this use case could account for that proportion of users. I know there are professionals who create online content for others, but I would think that most of them have also created their own content (and posted it online).

One of the most interesting and surprising results was who people look for online - or, more precisely, who people don't look for online. A table on page 24 of the study summarizes who looks for who:


There are several figures in this table that strike me as astoundingly low:

  • 19% of all Internet users search for co-workers, professional colleagues or business competitors; 11% of all Internet users search for someone they are thinking about hiring or working with.
    Wow! I always search for information about any person I plan to call, contact by email or meet face-to-face with for the first time, and I conduct very thorough searches for anyone I'm thinking about hiring or working with. It's hard to imagine that the vast majority of people have never done this.
  • 12% of all Internet users search for someone they just met or someone they were about to meet for the first time; 9% of all Internet users search for someone they are dating or in a relationship with.
    First of all, I'm a little confused about meeting someone vs. thinking about hiring or working with someone ... if the former subsumes the latter, then only 1% of Internet users search for someone they are thinking about meeting for personal (vs. professional) reasons. Given the immense popularity of online dating services - most of which include search functionality - I find this number to be the most surprising in the entire survey. Even if 12% of the population of adult Internet users is searching for information about prospective dates, this still seems low, given that 60% of U.S. males and 57% of U.S. women are married. Obviously, there are many people in relationships who are not married, but I would still expect that at least 24% of the adult population is "open" to new relationships (and perhaps a considerably higher percentage, if we include adulterers) ... which means at most half of them are searching online for information about potential partners. In any case, it's been a long time since I was not in a primary committed relationship - I've been happily married for almost 20 years (I'm not sure what proportion of that time my wife would claim to be happily married) - but if I were to become part of the singles scene today (flying spaghetti monster forbid), I would be even more committed to searching for information about anyone I was going to meet for personal reasons than for professional reasons.

I received yet another email announcement from Pew yesterday notifying me that a new study - an update on Teens and Social Media - has just been released. I wrote about the last Pew study on Teens, Privacy and Online Social Media when I was ranting blogging about the overestimation of risk in teens' use of MySpace. I look forward to reading - and blogging  - about the new study, but will save that for a separate post.

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