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What, me worry? Despite Snowden leaks, Americans' use of the 'Net largely unchanged

Zach Miners | March 17, 2015
Don't worry, be happy. That seems to be the attitude most Americans have toward widespread government snooping on their Internet activities.

Don't worry, be happy. That seems to be the attitude most Americans have toward widespread government snooping on their Internet activities.

Numerous leaks illuminating the massive scale of government surveillance programs have not rattled Americans. Relatively few people have made major changes to better secure their online communications and activities, even after the alarming revelations in Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents, according to the results of a Pew Research Center survey published Monday.

Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, blew the lid off government monitoring programs starting in mid-2013, leaking documents that reportedly showed how the U.S. government monitored and collected people's personal data held by Internet and telecom companies.

Thanks to the Snowden documents, first covered by The Guardian and The Washington Post, the world learned about the Prism program, which allegedly gave the NSA access to communications from nine tech companies, including Yahoo and Google. At the time, it was also revealed that the NSA systematically collected the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon Communications.

Since then, some Internet users worried about protecting their privacy have made basic changes to their online activities, like adjusting their privacy settings or deleting rogue apps. But most people have carried on as usual, uninterested in using encryption or identity-cloaking browsers like Tor, according to the study.

Roughly a third of respondents didn't even know what Tor is.

The Pew survey, conducted online between this past November and January, is the research center's first look at how people have changed their online behaviors to avoid government surveillance. In a related study late last year, Pew researchers found that the majority of Americans felt they had lost control of their personal data.

Some people have taken action. Roughly 30 percent of respondents said they had taken at least one step to hide or shield information from the government, according to the study's findings, which were based on a survey of 475 American adults. For example, among those who said they were aware of government surveillance programs, 17 percent said they have changed their privacy settings on social media. Thirteen percent said they have uninstalled certain apps since the Snowden leaks. Twenty-five percent said they now use more complex passwords.

Some 15 percent said they now use social media less often, while 11 percent have refrained from using certain terms in search engines they thought would trigger scrutiny.

But many more responded by saying they have not made wholesale changes to their online activities, or said they were not aware of other tools for more comprehensive online privacy. For example, among those who said they were aware of government surveillance programs, 40 percent said they have not used or considered using anonymity software like Tor.

 

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