Anonymity the new Web word

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, 12:21 a.m.

Nicole Haas takes time every day to delete so-called cookies from her computer.

“I've just always done it,” said the 25-year-old preschool teacher from Shaler.

Ensuring that the pesky files aren't gathering information about her online use and taking up space on her hard drive is second nature. Haas disables location devices when she downloads a new app to her smartphone.

Eighty-six percent of Internet users take steps to mask their online profiles, a new Pew Research Center survey for Carnegie Mellon University found. Nearly two-thirds delete cookies or their browser history. Others use public computers to try to surf anonymously, while still others attempt to encrypt communications or turn to temporary user names and passwords.

The survey was conducted in July, two months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden triggered cries for enhanced Internet privacy with his revelations of a large government electronic surveillance program.

“In the past, we thought very few people purposely tried to do anything to conceal their identity or communications. But now we know it's not just a small group of hackers. Almost everyone has done some thing to avoid surveillance,” CMU computer science Professor Sara Kiesler, who authored a report on the survey released Thursday.

Even as two-thirds of those surveyed said their photos, email addresses and work places easily can be found online, about an equal percentage said Internet privacy laws do not protect them.

Jacob H. Rooksby, an assistant professor of law at Duquesne University, said web users rarely understand what they're giving up in privacy when they use sites, which can have complex terms-of-use agreements or track users through cookies, which many people never realize have been embedded in their computers.

“The concern is we are signing away fundamental laws involving our rights through (Internet site) terms of service agreements,” Rooksby said.

That is pushing the courts and legal scholars to develop laws to address privacy concerns.

“The technology — and the culture around it — has outpaced the law,” said Parker Higgins of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Law is a slow-moving solution. That's one reason why it's important to make sure that the law doesn't prevent privacy-enhancing tools from being developed and adopted.”

Kurt Karafinski, 57, of Glenshaw, who has worked in data processing and analysis for 30 years, said he didn't ponder online privacy when he got into the business.

He's not surprised younger Americans might consider it a concern.

“They've grown up on social media,” Karafinski said.

That's how Natasha Young and her friends communicate. The 21-year-old Point Park University senior said she and her friends use privacy settings to prohibit anyone outside their circle from viewing their information on social media sites.

“We like to share things online, but we don't want anyone other than our friends to view it,” Young said.

That's the paradox, Rooksby said.

“When you think about platforms like Facebook and their ever-changing terms-of-service agreements that few people read, but basically say they can do anything with your information, you see Facebook isn't in it for free,” he said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

A growing number of people — 50 percent in the new survey compared to 33 percent in 2009 — worry about how much of their personal information is online.

“We go out and do these things. We love the benefits and then we worry about the risks,” Kiesler said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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