Privacy fears 'deterring' US web users from online shopping

Almost half of American households with at least one internet user have been “deterred” from online activity recently because of privacy or security concerns, a survey has said.

Their concerns had stopped them either using online banking or shopping or posting on social media, the survey by a Department of Commerce agency said.

The study asked 41,000 households about their activity in the past 12 months.

A US official said mistrust about privacy was causing “chilling effects”.

The agency that carried out the study, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), called for encryption and security to be improved.

The report, based on data collected by the US Census Bureau in July 2015, said 45% of online households had refrained from at least one of the activities identified in the survey, and 30% had refrained from at least two.

Asked about the activities individually, 29% of households responding said they had avoided conducting financial transactions online; 26% avoided buying goods or services; 26% avoided posting to social networks and 19% said they had stopped themselves expressing a controversial opinion on social media because of privacy concerns.

When respondents were asked what concerned them the most about online privacy and security, 63% said identity theft.

The respondents, who were allowed to give multiple answers, also cited credit card or banking fraud (45%), data collection by online services (23%), loss of control over personal data (22%) and data collection by the government (18%); 13% also said they were concerned about threats to personal safety.

The data suggested 19% of US online households had been affected by an online security breach in the previous year. The NTIA said this represented about 19 million American households.

The survey also suggested that households with more internet-connected devices were more likely to suffer a security breach online – 31% of those using at least five different internet-enabled devices were hit by a breach, it said.

“For the internet to grow and thrive, users must continue to trust that their personal information will be secure and their privacy protected,” NTIA policy analyst Rafi Goldberg said in a post accompanying the report.

“[Our] initial analysis only scratches the surface of this important area, but it is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the internet and the resulting chilling effects.”

Andy Mulcahy, editor at UK-based online retail association IMRG, said transparency was the key to increasing participation online.

“Businesses often avoid drawing attention to the fact they track data on people, which isn’t as underhand as it sounds,” he said.

“The nature of how this technology works is that we leave a trail of data whenever we interact with sites, but being more transparent about what they have, how it is used, and why, could actually… build trust.”