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Biggest Fears in Online Privacy

WPEngine recently sponsored an interesting study on Americans’ online privacy. More specifically, it examined which online activities Americans wanted to protect the most from prying eyes. According to the study, just 16 percent of those surveyed responded that one of their greatest concerns was being monitored while watching pornography.

By contrast, 71 percent of respondents said they were most concerned that someone would spy on them as they accessed their bank accounts or other financial data. Note that respondents were able to select more than one response.

Surprisingly, a 57 percent of participants worried that someone would snoop on their online shopping habits.

Regarding the platforms that people felt were secure or insecure, 66 percent of respondents said that social networks were the least trustworthy, while email came in second at 56 percent. Online gaming and Google Glass garnered the same response, worrying the same percentage of respondents as those concerned about their online porn habits.

The research – paid for by WPEngine which powers sites and apps built on WordPress – was done by Harris Interactive, which studied the attitudes of 2,100 American adults from June 19-23. What’s most surprising about the current American psyche – at least according to this research – is that so many people said they were concerned that they would be observed posting, sending, or looking at photos of themselves online. To 27 percent of participants in the study, this ranked as a “deep concern” of theirs.

Warranted Concerns

Most people realize that online privacy is precarious. After all, doing a simple online search with Google, Yahoo, Bing, or any other search engine that tracks and records users’ search queries, can be one of the most personal and revealing data streams. Such companies log IP addresses and search terms and can store this data for different lengths of time.

Users who are logged in with these services provide the companies much more information about their identity. These search engines are able to combine users’ search histories with other sensitive information they may have obtained. These records – once stored – can be accessed by government agencies under the Patriot Act, amongst other laws. For instance, in the latter half of 2013, Google reported that it was required to hand over information regarding 42,648 user accounts.

Unquestionably, search query records can be so personal, exposing users’ problems, interests, work and hobbies. Consider the situation back in 2006 with AOL. As a public service to researchers, the company released a large set of searches that had been conducted on its sites. The identity of the searchers was removed and replaced with an arbitrary number, though all the searches by the same individual were still collected and catalogued under the same identifier.

The New York Times quickly discovered that is wasn’t that difficult to identify many of the searchers through the content of their searches, which often contained identifying information, such as home town, neighborhood, age or sex. Of course, AOL apologized and removed the database, but this incident is a prime example of how search engine history can have powerful privacy implications.

CNET also combed the database and found many personal and at times disturbing search sets. Together, they provide a shocking sense of just how intimate and revealing the information users share with search engines can really be.

What can we do about it?

Of course, there are several search engines that declare they do not retain records of searches. One example is DuckDuckGo, which promises not to store users’ IP addresses or any other personalized information that can represent a record of searches. Should users perform two searches on DuckDuckGo, the service doesn’t have a way of knowing that they were both done by the same individual. It also doesn’t forward search terms to the sites users end up clicking to.

Along with DuckDuckGo, there are other privacy-protecting steps users can take. Startpage is a service which delivers Google search results while acting as an intermediary to hide users’ identity from Google. There are also a slew of alternative search engines which claim to respect user privacy, including Ixquick, Blekko and the Ask Eraser feature for Ask.com.

Summary

WPEngine recently sponsored a study about Americans’ online privacy concerns. Currently, the greatest concern with online infiltrators is spying on financial information. The article looks at the types of information that are stored by search engines, and lists alternative services which claim not to collect or retain user information.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Data collection (I.C.)
  • Privacy expectations (II.A.)
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