Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron

Susan Nunziata, Director of Editorial | 2/20/2014 | 73 comments

Susan Nunziata
Most of us have taken at least some action to keep our online identities private. Yet, even as we take steps -- such as religiously clearing our cookies, encrypting our email, or even using VPNs to mask our IP addresses -- the majority of us do not believe it's possible to be completely anonymous online.

This fatalistic outlook among US Internet users is revealed in a 2013 report from the Pew Research Internet Project, "Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online."

The findings have even more relevance in light of another recent study by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), which finds that the greatest threat to the security of our personal healthcare information comes from healthcare workers themselves. More on that in a minute.

First, let's take a closer look at the Pew study, which is based on survey responses from 782 US-based Internet users aged 18 and older.

The vast majority of respondents (86%) said they've taken steps to remove or mask their digital footprints. More than half of respondents (55%) have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government. A majority (59%) of respondents said they do not believe it's possible to remain completely anonymous online.

Those are some sobering numbers, but from where I sit what's even more shocking is the 37% of respondents who believe that it is possible to be completely anonymous online. I can only assume that these folks just don't pay attention to the news. In fact, the rest of the survey results seem to belie that notion of complete anonymity online.

For example, when asked "Suppose you said something critical about a product online, and you didn’t use your real name. How easy do you think it would be for the company to find out who you are anyway?" 79% of respondents said it would be "very easy" or "somewhat easy."

Table 1: How easy would it be for a corporation to find out your identity?

Degree of ease Percent respondents
Very easy 42 percent
Somewhat easy 37 percent
Not too easy 13 percent
Almost impossible 3 percent
Source; Pew Research Internet Project, "Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online," September 2013; 782 survey respondents who are Internet users.

More than half of respondents (56%) said that they have had their personal information compromised or experienced conflict with others due to their online activities.

Table 2: How is our data being compromised?

Online incident Percent respondents
Email or social networking account taken over without permission 21 percent
Stalked or harassed online 12 percent
Personal information stolen (SSN, credit card, bank account) 11 percent
Reputation damaged 6 percent
Online scam 6 percent
Source; Pew Research Internet Project, "Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online," September 2013; 782 survey respondents who are Internet users.

OK, with this information in mind, let's see what HIMSS has found out about our most personal of personal information: our healthcare records. The 2013 HIMSS Security Survey, released February 19, 2014, includes the results of a survey of 283 IT and security professionals employed by US hospitals and physician practices. The study was supported by the Medical Management Group Association and sponsored by Experian Data Breach Resolution. According to the HIMMS report:

    Eighty percent of respondents noted that they were concerned that human related factors would put data at risk. Furthermore, respondents were most likely to indicate the greatest motivator leading to the compromise of data is for workforce members to snoop on co-workers, friends and neighbors' patient information… Using a scale of one to seven, where one is not a threat and seven is an area that is of high threat concern, respondents were most likely to identify human-related factors such as individuals circumventing controls or disclosing information in error as the greatest area of concern.

Table 3: Factors posing a threat to health data

Area of concern Average score
Human-related factors 5.64
Virus/malware/disruptive software 4.66
Infiltration/intrusive attacks 4.56
Lack of planning, policies, procedures 4.51
Functionality of devices 4.36
Loss of integrity of information 4.32
Source: 2013 HIMSS Security Survey, February 19, 2014

So, what are the "human-related factors" that most trouble healthcare IT professionals? Negligence or unintentional mistakes that expose information -- such as the disclosure of information on websites, or lost/misplaced files or devices -- was cited as a concern by 86% of respondents. Two thirds of respondents (68%) also indicated that they were concerned workers would bypass security access or interfere with access control. More than half (58%) indicated concern about insider threats, including deliberate activity by workers, while 20% were concerned that outsourced staff would bypass security controls.

Taken together, these two studies paint a pretty grim picture about the state of our online privacy. Are your online experiences consistent with the Pew Research findings? What steps is your organization taking to specifically deal with those "human-related factors" that are such a hot area of concern in healthcare? Is true online anonymity a myth? Tell us in the comments section below.

Related posts:

— Susan Nunziata, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageLike EnterpriseEfficiency on Facebook, Director of Editorial,

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 8   >   >>
Susan Fourtané   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   4/1/2014 6:41:37 AM
Re: Snooping on healthcare records

"I can't quite envision where the endpoint is--where will all this behavior leave us as social human beings in 20 years? In 50?"

I believe, at this point, there is no endpoint. :(  You don't even have to wait 50 years. In 20 years' time --probably less-- all what we know as personal privacy and ethical behavior will be part of bed-time stories grandparents will tell children. That, provided there is not an AR doing the job. 

I suppose we need to accept, adapt, and carry on if we expect to be part of whatever it is coming in the future, which has been long predicted to change fast, continuously, and drastically. 

Maybe personal privacy becomes a topic of science fiction movies of the kind of Back to the Future. 

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The_Phil   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/26/2014 9:32:20 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?
Agreed. It's a shame how many folks so NOT think of this.
Susan Nunziata   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/26/2014 7:15:16 PM
Re: Snooping on healthcare records
@Susan: You're right, it's an unfortunate and depressing reality we are dealing with when it comes to personal privacy and ethical behavior. I can't quite envision where the endpoint is--where will all this behavior leave us as social human beings in 20 years? In 50? 
eethtworkz   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/25/2014 1:43:59 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?

That is a very good way to put this issue.

In a way it also reminds one of the fact that the Device (whether its a phone/car/consumer Electronics,etc) that gets copied the most is the one which is the most popular!

You have a similar analogy at play here.

One can forget about Such Downloads being 100% Secure in that case.

Taimoor Zubair   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/22/2014 7:10:55 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?
I agree with you. Be on your guard to cut your losses. Online privacy is an oxymoron, speaking from my experience. And it's your choice  what you put up there and how would you feel if that data was exploited. 
The_Phil   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/22/2014 6:12:07 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?
I'm not disagreeing with you.

I'm just saying that with each download, the "secure" nature of the app becomes less confident because more attention is drawn to it with more downloads. So even if you have tons of beta security testers today, in a week , there could be another zero-day attack that no one anticipaited.

Be vigilant with what you use, as a user, is my point.
eethtworkz   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/19/2014 1:24:46 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?

Maybe I was'nt very clear in the Post that I shared here with E2.

If you go through all the Links in the post;you will realize that Whatsapp has already been broken into for all practical purposes today.

Your data on that App is so insecure today its beyond scary.

That was my point in the post I made here.

The_Phil   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/18/2014 7:43:26 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?
I think we should all be on the side of caution when any app gets too much exposure. It's ripe for hacks once there's such a huge known user base. Then on top of that, if the app's free, it's an even easier target.
eethtworkz   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/18/2014 1:18:19 PM
Re: You think Facebook would have paid 19 Billion for Whatsapp if Online Privacy was relevant?

I feel its more of the Former(Tech Bubble) than Latter(lost all interest in Personal Privacy) but I get your point entirely.

People should be more cautious using Whatsapp in the Future.

Especially after this news broke about Whatsapp being "Naked" on Android Handsets.

And here's the Full Technology behind the Security Flaw on Whatsapp.

More reasons to be wary of using Whatsapp now?


Nomi   Online Privacy Is an Oxymoron   3/14/2014 4:00:17 PM
Re: Snooping on healthcare records
@ Susan 

With the emergence of electronic medical records in Health care sector, accessibility of sensitivity data is a major concern. The employee of any data center may get the required information with the help of few keystrokes with no questions asked. The question for all the organizations involved in keeping aforesaid record how to secure the data from snooping. In this regard, utilization of access intelligence tools coupled with biometric system may be implemented to monitor logs of employee access and discover the few black ships misusing their access to patient data by snooping on family, friends or Celebrities.

Page 1 / 8   >   >>

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