Americans Try to Disappear from Internet as Security Anxiety Grows

In a movement that could hurt online ad and e-commerce sales, while adding to the personal privacy and security of many people who use the Internet, Americans have started to mask their identities.

According to a new survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints — ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email.

55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government.

Americans have some reasons to be wary about their security. First among those are identity theft and widely reported news that the National Security Agency tracks some people’s activities. The NSA and large Internet firms like Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) say that this tracking is not done at the individual person level. However, whether rightly or wrongly, many people do not believe that.

Also, not a day goes by without news of some new hacking by hidden menaces, many of which are located in North Korea, China, Syria or even the United States. Banks and media companies have been the target of some of these efforts. Often these “hacks” have as their goal the theft of personal data, including financial information. Those who worry that their identities could be stolen or their bank accounts could be cleared out might appear paranoid, but with each new incident of a breakdown in security, they seem less and less so.

To some extent, the Pew data supports the anxiety of Americans:

21% of internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over by someone else without permission.

12% have been stalked or harassed online.

11% have had important personal information stolen such as their Social Security Number, credit card, or bank account information.

6% have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.

6% have had their reputation damaged because of something that happened online.

4% have been led into physical danger because of something that happened online.

Gathering data is at the heart of whether e-commerce and media companies can make money online. Some amount of information gathering is necessary to target products and marketing messages to consumers. The period when that can be done readily may be over. The anxiety about access to person data has a stronger and stronger foundation because of how badly online security has eroded.