Internet users are increasingly curious about the information about them that’s available online, but they’re not doing much to monitor that information in a structured way.
That’s one finding of a new study released Sunday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Entitled “Digital Footprints: Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency,” the study found that while 47 percent of Internet users have searched for their own name online, only 3 percent of those who have done so make it a regular practice, Susannah Fox, associate director at the Pew Internet and American Life project and a coauthor of the report, told TechNewsWorld.
In a similar Pew study released in 2002, by contrast, only 22 percent of Internet users had searched on their own names.
The new report is based on a December 2006 national telephone survey of 2,373 adults, of whom 1,623 were Internet users. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.
More Interesting Searches
People searches have been going on for decades, but the Internet has increased the volume of information readily available and allowed amateurs to join the search, Fox noted.
“Search engines have made it easier, and Web 2.0 has made it more interesting,” she said.
Specifically, the explosion of blogs, video and online profiles through social networking sites and content sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr have increased the size of people’s digital footprints, Fox explained.
“The cumulative traces of our online activity are more visible in the age of Web 2.0,” added Mary Madden, a coauthor on the report. “The more content we voluntarily contribute to the public or semipublic corners of the Web, the more we become not only findable, but knowable.”
A Public Persona
Roughly one in 10 Internet users surveyed is required by their job to have information available online, Fox noted. Sixty-eight percent of that group use search engines to see what content is associated with them online.
“If you have a reason to be a public persona, you’re more likely to keep track of your digital footprint,” she explained.
Fifty-three percent of Internet users have searched online for information about personal and business contacts, according to the study.
Specifically, 72 percent of people searchers have sought contact information online, while 37 percent have looked to the Web for information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests, the researchers found. Thirty-three percent have sought out someone’s profile on a social and professional networking site, and 31 percent have searched for someone’s photo.
Thirty-one percent have searched for someone else’s public records — such as real estate transactions, divorce proceedings, bankruptcies, or other legal actions — and 28 percent have searched for someone’s personal background information, the study found.
“Nostalgia seems to motivate quite a few Internet users,” Fox said. “The most popular search target is someone from the past — an old friend, an old flame or a former colleague.”
Such findings underscore the Internet’s capacity to reunite and reignite social connections, she added.
A Laid-Back Approach
Despite all the searching going on, however, people have apparently become less sensitive over the last decade to privacy concerns, Fox asserted.
Sixty percent of Internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online, and only 38 percent say they have taken steps to limit the amount of online information that is available about them. Teens are more likely to restrict access to their online profiles, the study found.
Roughly a third of Internet users believe that their email address, home address, home phone number or their employer is available online; only a quarter think a photo, names of groups they belong to, or things they have written appear online; and very few believe their political affiliation, cell phone number, or video appear online.
Yet much of that data is available, Pew found in interviews with experts, suggesting that many users are simply unaware of the wide-ranging nature of online personal information.
Rather than assuming people are less concerned with privacy, however, a better conclusion from the report might be that the meaning of privacy has changed, Daniel J. Solove, an associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of the book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet, told TechNewsWorld.
“I think it is true that people are currently not aware of the consequences of their online reputations,” Solove said. “This is all relatively new, so many people are putting information online without having experienced the dark side or realizing the damage it could do to themselves or others. That’s definitely a big problem.”
The fact that people are comfortable having information about them online does not, however, mean that they don’t expect privacy, Solove added.
“The idea that privacy is about keeping deep, dark secrets hidden has become an almost antiquated notion,” he explained. “Today, there are lots of other things people want, including control over the information so that it doesn’t get used in certain ways.”
People may be comfortable having information publicly available, for example, but they might not be comfortable if it were used for advertising purposes, he said.
“These results are very interesting, but how you interpret the data going into the future is fairly complicated because it depends on what we understand privacy to be,” Solove concluded. “Some people haven’t been bitten yet, and we’re also dealing with nuanced understandings of privacy. But you can’t conclude privacy is dead.”
Need for Tools
For users who are concerned, there may not even be much they can do today to protect their online information, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told TechNewsWorld.
“I think this is more evidence that there are not good tools out there that allow Internet users to safeguard their privacy,” Rotenberg said. “That’s been the problem with privacy, and not surprisingly, users are frustrated with opt-outs and systems that promise but don’t deliver anonymity.”
What needs to happen, Rotenberg added, is for steps to be taken on a higher level: “The obligation falls on the policy makers and the companies that develop these services to do a better job.”