Americans: On the Internet, People Do Too Know You’re a Dog

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 10.42.51 AMBack in 1993, cartoonist Peter Steiner famously captured a largely held belief about the Internet: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

According to a fascinating new study from Pew, that’s no longer true.

Just 24% of adults “agree” (20%) or “strongly agree” (3%) with the statement: “It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online.” By contrast, 74% “disagree” (52%) or “strongly disagree” (22%) that it is easy for them to be anonymous.

The poll suggests this is partly because of coverage of government spying, and partly because of corporate spying.

I find two other things about this most interesting. First, the demographics on the specific answers are very fascinating. Just as one example, more affluent people are more likely to check how they come up on Internet searches.

Self-searching activity varies greatly across different groups, particularly by age, income, and household education. Adults under the age of 50 are far more likely to be “self-searchers” than those ages 50 and older, and adults with higher levels of household income and education stand out as especially likely to check up on their own digital footprints.

But I can imagine that’s because they live more of their life online (and they’re more apt to use things like Linked In to apply for jobs). There are also demographic differences in what people find sensitive (see differences in sensitivity about email content at 50, for example). Again, that may reflect the degree to which these tools are available, and therefore are likely to include sensitive communications.

The other thing, however, is that people appear far less worried about metadata than they should be. I get why people are almost universally worried about social security privacy — and this likely reflects the fact that the most immediate threat to everyone is identity theft, not government spying or abuse from Google. But in both government and commercial hands, metadata have become more revealing than content. Respondents don’t seem to worry about it though.

5 replies
  1. fritter says:

    I don’t think people understand what metadata is, and how easy it is to use both for legitimate and harmful purposes. Even tech savy people don’t necessarily “get it” because the harm isn’t known and isn’t likely to become known. Just like when the DOJ uses parallel construction to convict a criminal they hide the true source, you’re inability to get life insurance because of your online profile won’t be broadcast as such. If it were, people would either demand more privacy or change their (online) behavior to compensate. That guarantees that data mining is only profitable when the public don’t know the repercussions.

    The general public doesn’t think, well they just don’t think period, but especially about worst case scenarios unless it includes the Zombie Apocalypse. They certainly aren’t thinking their children could be deprived because of the poor choices of their high school friends, or some club they belonged to years ago. I think the biggest challenge is just showing what this metadata “stuff” can be used for.

    I had a conversation with a family member along the lines of “I don’t do anything wrong, so what?” My response was that may be true, it may even be true that everyone you have contact with is just as squeaky clean. That won’t matter because the judge in your trial, has a daughter who’s entire future life would be ruined if it were widely known what she did on campus last weekend. “Well I won’t do anything to go to jail”. No but I’m talking about when that drunk driver ran into you and you had to sue the insurance company to cover your medical bills. That is, privacy is not about protecting yourself from your actions. Hell, even Jesus had friends from low places.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Individual bits of data are the print dots in a newspaper picture, the points of color in a pointillist painting. Useful on their own, they are less useful than metadata. It is metadata, in large amounts and over time, that reveal patterns, like stepping away from the newspaper or painting to see the “revealed” – that is, constructed – pattern.
    To pick another analogy more familiar to Beltway flora and fauna, in battle, individual fallen soldiers are a tragedy. Read en masse, however, the path of the fallen determines the outcome of battles and wars. Debate over access to and use of metadata is the overarching conflict.

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