Most Americans are worried about privacy and viruses when using Facebook or Google (GOOG), according to results of a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released Tuesday.
Nearly seven out of 10 Facebook members surveyed — and 52% of Google users — say they are either “somewhat” or “very concerned” about their privacy while using the world’s most popular social network and dominant search engine.
Even so, technologists and privacy experts say most people lack a clear grasp of the complex risks they accept whenever they’re on the Internet. “Consumers generally do not understand who’s getting access to their data and for what purpose,” says Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at the Stanford University Center for Internet and Society.
Many of us “have a general sense of unease” when we’re online, Calo says.
Many consumers perceive they are being tracked online by advertisers, government and cybercriminals and that their data could be use to embarrass them or steal their identities. But most surf the Web intensively anyway.
Privacy entwined with security
The poll found that a similar percentage of Facebook and Google users — 65% and 54%, respectively — say they are worried about Internet viruses.
“In my mind, that shows a lower level of concern (about viruses) than folks really ought to have,” says Lisa Sotto, head of privacy and information management at law firm Hunton & Williams. “There is probably a lack of understanding about how very dangerous viruses can be.”
The erosion of security and privacy often go hand in hand. Social networks, banks, tech companies and retailers continue to make it easier than ever to create accounts, share personal details and do most activities on the Web.
This is being driven largely by advertisers’ desire to make online pitches to the person most likely to buy. “The only way that happens is through the collection of huge amounts of data about each of us, followed by the sale of the data,” says Michael Fertik, CEO of identity management firm Reputation.com.
Candy store for crooks
Data flowing through the Web have translated into a candy store for criminals. It’s easier than ever for even low-skilled hackers to spread infections via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter postings and corrupted Google search results — and take full control of Web-connected PCs.
And those risks are intensifying with rising use of smartphones and mobile devices to access the Web. “A smartphone is more appropriately called a spyphone,” says John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group. “The mobile world is like the wild west.”
Some companies are doing what they can. “I’m heartened by the attention to mobile privacy issues,” says privacy attorney Chris Wolf of Hogan Lovells. New services revolve around “ways to empower people to protect their information.”