Some Web users have curtailed their use of social networking services, apps, email and even search engines as a result of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations about online surveillance by the government.
That's according to Pew Research Center’s Internet, Science and Technology research project, which today released a new report examining people's attitudes toward privacy.
The report, based on a survey of 475 people, found that the vast majority of Americans (87%) had heard that the U.S. government monitors online communications. Of that group, 18% said they had changed the way they used email, while 17% said they had changed their social media privacy settings. Fifteen percent said they now avoided certain apps, and 11% said they avoid typing certain terms into search engines' query boxes.
“I don't search some things that I might have before,” one respondent who participated in a follow-up panel said.
Another discussed being “somewhat” concerned about typing certain queries into search engines, because the terms “may appear suspicious, even if my reason is pure curiosity.”
At the same time, relatively few respondents are using technological tools that tout enhanced privacy features.
For instance, just 10% of those who had heard of governmental snooping use search engines that don't store people's search history, while just 5% use browser plug-ins like Privacy Badger -- a browser add-on aimed at preventing advertisers and ad networks from tracking people's online activity.
Only 2% of respondents familiar with governmental surveillance have used programs that automatically encrypt email, while a mere 1% use anonymity software like Tor.
Why don't more people use technological measures to protect privacy?
For one thing, many respondents told Pew they weren't familiar with privacy-enhancing tools.
And even those who had heard of the technology weren't sure that learning to use it was worth the trouble.
“I do not feel expert enough to know what to do to protect myself, and to know that the protection chosen is effective. Technology changes very fast,” one respondent said.
What's more, respondents were afraid that using tools like Tor or encrypted email could backfire.
“There's no point in inviting scrutiny if it's not necessary,” one respondent told researchers.
“[I] don't want them misunderstanding something and investigating me,” said another.
That concern might be justified. In 2013, The Guardianreported that the NSA considered people’s use of online anonymity services, or email encryption services, grounds to retain communications.