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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Many Online Taking Privacy Into Their Own Hands

Study: Wary of being watched, consumers are using false names and other diversion tactics.

August 21, 2000|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The nation's Internet users want stronger privacy protections in cyberspace and many resort to using fake names, dummy e-mail accounts and data scrambling software to preserve their anonymity, a new study has found.

The 29-page report offers new evidence that consumers are uncomfortable with, and therefore often try to thwart, the data gathering that many commercial Web sites insist is necessary to tailor goods and information to specific consumer interests.

The study, by the Pew Research Foundation in Washington, reported that 84% of Internet users said they are concerned about businesses invading their privacy online. By that count, commercial Web sites outranked even hackers, considered a privacy threat by only 68% of those surveyed.

"There is broad-based concern about privacy being compromised," said Lee Rainie, the director of the study. Americans, Rainie added, "'want the golden rule of the Internet to be: 'Don't do anything unto me unless I give you permission.' "

The report comes as the Federal Trade Commission and Capitol Hill lawmakers are seeking to impose sweeping new regulatory restrictions and privacy laws to protect consumers online.

Yet even as they express anxiety about being monitored online, consumers' ability to protect their privacy is hampered by their unfamiliarity with the basic mechanics of Internet data collection.

For example, 56% of Internet users surveyed said they did not know what an Internet "cookie" is. So-called cookie files are unique identifiers many Web sites place on visitors' computers in order to be able to track their online movements.

Many computer users--even those who buy goods online--are simply "unaware that their computers' hard drives are implanted with cookies," the report said.

The study also noted that despite their privacy worries, many Web surfers do a striking number of intimate and trusting things online, such as responding to e-mail from strangers or making their personal address books or appointment schedules accessible online.

Part of the overall lack of privacy awareness stems from the fact that millions of Americans with little knowledge of the Internet are venturing online for the first time. About 35% of the 144 million people who have access to the Internet in the U.S. came online in the last year.

"I think a lot of people who are not technically sophisticated are going online now, and that's all the more reason to provide consumer education so that people can make appropriate choices" about their privacy, said Dana Rosenfeld, assistant director of the bureau of consumer protection at the FTC.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project surveyed 2,117 Americans, of whom 1,017 were Internet users. The survey, which was conducted May 19 through June 21, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Although only 5% of Web surfers use "anonymizing" software to help prevent their computer from being tracked by a Web site, 10% reported that they have used data-scrambling encryption software to hide their e-mail from prying eyes.

And 20% use a secondary e-mail address when forced to provide information to a Web site. An additional 25% of Internet users say they have provided a fake name or given false responses to a Web site seeking personal information from them.

For decades, magazine publishers and direct-mail marketers have compiled and sold personal information about consumers. But privacy experts say the global computer network has dramatically raised the privacy stakes by making it much easier to collect, analyze and publish personal data on a more massive scale.

Consumers who give up their names and addresses online often do so without knowing how the data will be used, according to experts, many of whom advocate a greater government role in protecting privacy on the Net.

"Individuals who value their privacy aren't often able to make rational decisions about how to protect it," said David E. Sorkin, associate director of the Center for Information and Privacy Law in Chicago. "Privacy protection is not really something that you can leave to the free market."

But some industry groups take issue with privacy advocates, arguing that businesses in the virtual world have even more incentive than shopping malls and corner stores to protect their customers' privacy because the vast World Wide Web makes it easy and convenient for shoppers to take their business elsewhere.

"All you need to do is get mistreated once and you are out of there to another Web site," said Harris Miller, president of the trade group Information Technology Assn. of America in Arlington, Va. "Unlike in the bricks-and-mortar world, on the Internet you can always buy your clothes somewhere else, buy your books somewhere else." So merchants, he said, have to give their customers "first-class treatment."

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