A new study from the Pew Research Center features a bevy of interesting statistics about online anonymity. Key highlights include the following:
Privacy is clearly an important issue for the average internet user. 59% of internet users say people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously. 37% of respondents still believe it's possible to be completely anonymous online. 59% said it was impossible.
It's no surprise that younger adults value anonymity higher than their older counterparts. The graph below illustrates that the age gap applies to internet security. Malware authors understand this and try to target older individuals with their phishing emails because of a higher success rate.
When it comes to who internet users are trying to hide from, hackers and criminals are unsurprisingly at the top of the list:
More shockingly, only 55% of internet users said they have taken steps to avoid being observed by at least one of these groups. That means 45% of internet users are oblivious to their own privacy concerns, and even more tellingly, 66% of internet users don't try to hide from hackers and criminals. With statistics like that, it's no wonder that identity stealing attacks have been on the rise year after year.
When it comes to identity theft, reputation damage, and security issues, the survey said:
The survey does not try to correlate between whether or not the 11% that had their personal information stolen were comprised primarily of the 45% of internet users who don't care about hiding from hackers, but it's a safe bet that users who don't care about mitigating risk are at a higher risk themselves.
From a security perspective, in summary, while 86% of internet users have taken some kind of action of some sort to cover their steps online, only 33% of internet users tried to hide their activities specifically from hackers and criminals, and only 18% tried to mask their identity. 11% of all internet users were victims of identity theft, and 6% actually lost money due to an online scam.
My own conclusion from this data is that internet users need to try harder to stay safe online. As the graph below shows, the 86% of internet users who took some action to try to stay anonymous online was weighted heavily by actions that realistically have little to no impact on actual online privacy. Clearing your cookies and browser history is simply not sufficient.
Masking your identity, on the other hand, is a useful thing to do when it comes to staying safe online. If you want to join the 33% of users who actually care about their online safety enough to do something about it and stay out of the 11% of users whose identities are stolen, you need a powerful solution to online identity theft. That solution is the Identity Shield, found in all versions of Webroot SecureAnywhere. For more on the Identity Shield, check out our deep dive article to learn all about it and how it can help protect you from identity theft. Then check out our sale on Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete (offer ends October 1st, 2013).
In a situation in which you're already confident you're being stalked, the best thing to do is not respond to the stalker. This could be misconstrued as an invitation for the person to continue harassing you. However, don't delete any of the evidence either. If you want to report the person, deleting all of the harassing messages as they come in just makes it harder for you to make your case later. Police departments are getting better about having dedicated cybercrime units these days, and you can contact your local police department to find out what kind of options you have when it comes to dealing with the perpetrator. In many ways, online stalking is easier to prosecute than physical stalking because of an increased propensity to leave a trail.
You can also make use of the features built into the websites you use. Facebook is a good example of a company that is getting this right. You can very easily report a comment as abuse and then block the offending poster.
Find out exactly how easy it is to stalk yourself. Search your phone number in Google and see what all it pulls up. Do the same thing with your address, your full name, and anything else you think might be used to track you online. Pretend you're stalking yourself. This can often be a fun but eye-opening activity. When you find something about yourself that's obviously not something you want to find on a search engine, try getting it pulled down. Sometimes you just need to log into where you posted the material to begin with and edit it out. Other times maybe you need to contact a site admin.
There are also of course some things you can do to stop stalking before it starts:
1. Be mindful of the level of personal detail you include in your online posts.
Identifying yourself as who you really are makes it easier for anyone to Google Search you and learn more about you.
2. Don't ever post phone numbers, dates of birth, passwords, addresses, or anything else that could be used to personally identify you.
It's easy to think "The stalker won't see this because it's on a place online that he doesn't know about," but that's a fallacy. Google search-indexes basically the entire known internet, and a search for something as simple as an unusual username can turn up all of your online posts from all of the various places you've posted things online. That phone number you might have posted up somewhere in some obscure place could be easier to find than you think. Craigslist is a good example of how many people can unwittingly make themselves a lot easier to find than they really intended. If you post up an add, don't include your full name, and try to avoid providing the address within the post itself, particularly when accompanied by a phone number. Otherwise, if the stalker googles just one of those things, he's likely to come away with the other as well.
If you use one password for everything, how hard do you think it would be for a cyberstalker to log into everywhere he knows you have an account online? Clearly it would be much easier than if you had multiple passwords. Once a stalker figures out one password, he would have all of them at that point. Yes, it's really easy for you to remember that one, easy little password, but what if you made it easy on yourself in a different way by having Webroot sign you in to everywhere you go online? In doing so, you can change all of your online passwords to practically-impossible-to-guess random strings of letters and numbers without needing to worry that you'll forget them. The benefit of having multiple passwords is that even if the stalker has one, he still doesn't have them all.
4. Don't tell people where you're going or where you've been.
A lot of folks like FourSquare and checking in on Facebook and publicly posting that you'll be attending an event. Unsurprisingly, stalkers can make use of these tools. Either don't use them or make certain you have your privacy settings configured appropriately.
Residents of the U.S. may find this list of state cyberstalking and cyberharrassment laws to be useful. Checking it can tell you (albeit in verbose legalese) whether or not you may have a good case against your stalker.