Trends in Internet Privacy and Security Perceptions and Online Activity
Posted: 19 Mar 2018 Last revised: 25 May 2018
Date Written: January 4, 2018
The twenty-first century’s second decade has been marked by increasingly high-profile cybersecurity vulnerabilities, data breaches, and controversies over policies and practices that affect the privacy of Internet users’ data. At a time when the Internet and online services are being used to transfer, process, and store the communications, finances, and even locations of billions of people, Internet users are learning through numerous headlines that the many benefits of a networked and digitized world are paired with some risks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these challenges have been accompanied by data suggesting that many Americans harbor some mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet, and that lower levels of trust may lead to reductions in certain online activities. For example, Goldberg et al. (2016) analyzed data from the 2015 Current Population Survey (CPS) Computer and Internet Use Supplement, a large survey of households regularly commissioned by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, and found “that Internet-using households that expressed various privacy or security concerns or experienced an online breach or harassment were significantly more likely than their peers to report that such concerns led them to refrain from a range of online activities.” After controlling for demographic and other factors correlated with online activities, they find that Internet-using households expressing particular privacy or security concerns or negative experiences were significantly more likely to report that they had declined to conduct related online activities. Those concerned about identity theft were 16 percentage points more likely to have refrained from completing a financial transaction over the Internet, while those who experienced online harassment were 14 percentage points more likely to have chosen not to express a controversial or political viewpoint online.
We seek to further understand how perceptions of security and privacy impact online activity by examining changes over time. In its 2017 CPS Supplement, NTIA again included substantially the same questions about what most concerns American Internet users when it comes to online privacy and security risks, whether they have experienced an online security breach or online harassment during the past year, and whether concerns about privacy or security have stopped them from performing a range of different activities. By analyzing any changes over this period, we aim to shed light on whether mistrust or negative experiences related to Internet security or privacy have increased or decreased over time, and whether those trends have led to any corresponding changes in online activity.
By employing quantitative analysis, we will learn whether high-profile data breaches and controversies over online privacy were accompanied by changes in online trust or in Internet users reporting they have been affected by cybersecurity incidents. And just as importantly for policymakers, we will examine whether any such changes in perception were associated with changes in online activity levels. At a time when the digital economy is increasingly important to overall economic prosperity in the United States, it is important to ensure that policymakers understand the impacts cybersecurity threats and privacy concerns can have on economic growth and the free exchange of ideas.
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