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Despite Snowden Leaks, Few Americans Curb Online Habits

Edward Snowden, shown on a live stream from Moscow, receives the Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish Parliament, in Stockholm, Dec. 1, 2014.

Some two years after Edward Snowden revealed that he leaked classified documents about government snooping, some Americans say they have taken extra precautions to protect themselves online.

But by and large, most seemingly have not changed their Internet or mobile phone habits.

Those are the conclusions of a report released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet project that explores U.S. attitudes about electronic surveillance.

Titled "Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post Snowden," the study is the first to probe not only Americans’ opinions about alleged National Security Agency monitoring of phones and the Internet, but also how those opinions are shaping their behavior.

"In this report, we have indications that a sizable segment of Americans are changing some of their behaviors in response to the Snowden leaks," lead author and Pew senior researcher Mary Madden said. "But most of these changes are not highly technical and instead point to self-censoring behavior."

Nearly 90 percent of the 475 respondents had heard at least a little about the NSA programs revealed in the Snowden leaks, with about 30 percent saying they’ve heard a lot.

Of that 90 percent, just about one-third say they’ve altered their behavior in some way to help shield their activities and guard their privacy on the phone or online. These steps included changing privacy settings on social media like Facebook (17 percent), avoiding certain apps or programs (15 percent), or communicating more in person than electronically (14 percent).

One possible reason more adults didn’t change their behavior, Madden said, is a lack of awareness of available tools or a perceived lack of technological knowledge.

"Things like encryption, proxy servers, anonymity services … these are all technologies that are being used by a pretty small segment of the population right now," Madden told VOA. "We find that over half of Americans say they in fact it would be difficult for them to find tools and strategies for them to be more private online."

Study focus groups revealed another possible explanation, one that surprised the researchers.

"There’s actually a segment of folks [who] ... didn’t take these steps because they didn’t want to appear suspicious or invite scrutiny," Madden said. "Some people actually feel the folks that actually are using encryption tools are then creating a red flag for their behaviors online."

Overall, a majority of respondents (57 percent) said it was unacceptable for the U.S. government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens, a result Madden says it very much in line with previous research findings from Pew’s Research Center for People and the Press.

However, 54 percent said the U.S. monitoring of citizens of other countries was acceptable and a full 60 percent said monitoring American leaders and leaders of other nations was acceptable.

"Younger adults are less likely to be OK with monitoring of other groups, and in general Americans have become less confident that these programs are in the public interest," Madden said.

"Given our previous studies, and the high levels of concern that we monitored, it’s not particularly surprising. What was surprising is that Republicans have become less confident over time, more so than Democrats," she said.

Previous studies by Pew have strongly indicated a large majority of Americans fear they have lost the ability to protect their privacy in general and particularly online, with little consensus about what, if anything, could help reverse that trend.

"Overall, Americans just feel as though they’ve lost control about how their personal information is used; not just government monitoring, but companies’ use of it as well," Madden said. "So all these stories about government data collection and data breaches that are coming through the news just feed into this greater sense that they’ve lost control of their privacy."

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.