What, me worry? Despite Snowden leaks, Americans' use of the 'Net largely unchanged

In light of broad government snooping, many people aren't even aware of privacy tools like Tor or encryption

Don't worry, be happy. That seems to be the attitude most Americans have toward widespread government snooping on their Internet activities.

Numerous leaks illuminating the massive scale of government surveillance programs have not rattled Americans. Relatively few people have made major changes to better secure their online communications and activities, even after the alarming revelations in Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents, according to the results of a Pew Research Center survey published Monday.

Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, blew the lid off government monitoring programs starting in mid-2013, leaking documents that reportedly showed how the U.S. government monitored and collected people's personal data held by Internet and telecom companies.

Thanks to the Snowden documents, first covered by The Guardian and The Washington Post, the world learned about the Prism program, which allegedly gave the NSA access to communications from nine tech companies, including Yahoo and Google. At the time, it was also revealed that the NSA systematically collected the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon Communications.

Since then, some Internet users worried about protecting their privacy have made basic changes to their online activities, like adjusting their privacy settings or deleting rogue apps. But most people have carried on as usual, uninterested in using encryption or identity-cloaking browsers like Tor, according to the study.

Roughly a third of respondents didn't even know what Tor is.

The Pew survey, conducted online between this past November and January, is the research center's first look at how people have changed their online behaviors to avoid government surveillance. In a related study late last year, Pew researchers found that the majority of Americans felt they had lost control of their personal data.

Some people have taken action. Roughly 30 percent of respondents said they had taken at least one step to hide or shield information from the government, according to the study's findings, which were based on a survey of 475 American adults. For example, among those who said they were aware of government surveillance programs, 17 percent said they have changed their privacy settings on social media. Thirteen percent said they have uninstalled certain apps since the Snowden leaks. Twenty-five percent said they now use more complex passwords.

Some 15 percent said they now use social media less often, while 11 percent have refrained from using certain terms in search engines they thought would trigger scrutiny.

But many more responded by saying they have not made wholesale changes to their online activities, or said they were not aware of other tools for more comprehensive online privacy. For example, among those who said they were aware of government surveillance programs, 40 percent said they have not used or considered using anonymity software like Tor.

Nearly half said they have not used email encryption technology like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), which scrambles people's messages either en route or while at rest on company servers. Nearly a third said they did not know that technology existed. Over the past couple of years, more messaging apps like WhatsApp have baked encryption into their products, while others like Google and now Yahoo have released source code for encrypted messaging.

Fewer than half of respondents said they have used or considered using a search engine that doesn't keep logs of users' search history. (DuckDuckGo, for example, is a privacy-oriented search engine that does save searches, but not people's IP addresses or other unique identifiers.)

More than 40 percent said they have not used or were not aware of browser plugins like Privacy Badger for blocking tracking.

Overall, the majority of respondents said it would be difficult to find tools or implement strategies to help them be more private.

The findings show that activists and companies making privacy-oriented products still have much to do in educating consumers about the strongest ways to secure their digital communications.

Or, the results may show that some people just don't care.

Respondents were split on their level of concern about government surveillance programs that monitor people's phones and digital communications. While 52 percent said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned, 46 percent said they were "not very" or "not at all" concerned.

There were no partisan differences when it came to those who have changed their use of technology.

The survey also revealed how Americans feel about spying on people in other countries. While 57 percent said they oppose monitoring U.S. citizens, 54 percent said it was OK to monitor foreign citizens. More than 80 percent said it was acceptable to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists.

And yet, more than 60 percent said they've become less confident since the Snowden leaks that government surveillance programs are serving the public interest.

Respondents for the survey were recruited through the GfK Group, a market research company, out of a randomly selected group. The sampling error for the survey was plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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Zach Miners

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