Is Online Data Privacy Possible?

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It's no secret that most people would prefer not to have their personal information displayed openly online for all the world to see (with the exception of prolific Facebook users). A recent Pew Research Center survey shows most consumers know that they leave large digital footprints and they go to considerable trouble to avoid being observed on the web. For the project, 1,002 consumers were interviewed by phone.

The survey found that most consumers are aware that an extraordinary amount of personal information exists about them online (and this is probably a fraction of the actual information that is available about them online). The majority (66%) know at least one photo of them is floating around the web. Half (50%) are aware that their birth date can be found on the web. Almost half (46%) know their email address is posted publicly on the web. These are all data points a cyberthief could use to steal a person's identity.

To mask their online activities, most consumers (64%) have cleared cookies and their browser history. Many (13%) admit that they have given inaccurate information about themselves. Both of these behaviors have implications for banks. Banks use cookies on their websites to keep track of consumers' preferences. And the fact that consumers are willing to post bogus information about themselves means banks need to look at certain outside data sources, such as social media feeds, with a wary eye.

Despite such precautions on consumers' part, most recognize that online privacy is a very elusive goal. The survey asked them: Considering everything you know and have heard about the internet, do you think it is possible for someone to use the internet completely anonymously so that none of their online activities can be easily traced back to them? A mere 37% said they thought this was possible; 59% said it was not possible. Women were more likely than men to think anonymity is impossible, 64% versus 54%.

Asked if, upon posting a criticism about a product online under a fake name, the company would be able to find out who they are anyway, 79% thought it would. So even when you don't know what your customers are up to, they may well think you do.

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