Awareness, Adoption, and Misconceptions of Web Privacy Tools

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Citation of Original Publication

Peter Story, Daniel Smullen, Yaxing Yao, Alessandro Acquisti, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Norman Sadeh and Florian Schaub, Awareness, Adoption, and Misconceptions of Web Privacy Tools, Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies ; 2021 (3):1–26,


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Privacy and security tools can help users protect themselves online. Unfortunately, people are often unaware of such tools, and have potentially harmful misconceptions about the protections provided by the tools they know about. Effectively encouraging the adoption of privacy tools requires insights into people’s tool awareness and understanding. Towards that end, we conducted a demographically-stratified survey of 500 US participants to measure their use of and perceptions about five web browsing-related tools: private browsing, VPNs, Tor Browser, ad blockers, and antivirus software. We asked about participants’ perceptions of the protections provided by these tools across twelve realistic scenarios. Our thematic analysis of participants’ responses revealed diverse forms of misconceptions. Some types of misconceptions were common across tools and scenarios, while others were associated with particular combinations of tools and scenarios. For example, some participants suggested that the privacy protections offered by private browsing, VPNs, and Tor Browser would also protect them from security threats – a misconception that might expose them to preventable risks. We anticipate that our findings will help researchers, tool designers, and privacy advocates educate the public about privacy- and security-enhancing technologies.