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Middle Eastern Bloggers May Be Unprepared for Online Security Threats, Study Finds

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 2 2011

In the face of increasing threats to their safety and their ability to publish, bloggers in the Middle East don't have a firm grasp on how to protect themselves online, according to survey results released yesterday by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Nearly a third of bloggers who responded to the Berkman study reported being personally threatened in the past year, and 18 percent reported that their website or online account had been broken into or attacked.

In the face of these threats, bloggers surveyed by Berkman indicated that they thought they knew more about security than they likely did, the researchers found. Of 98 respondents, 77 percent said they knew how to use strong passwords — picking passwords that are longer, mixed with characters that aren't letters, and thus harder to guess or otherwise defeat as a security measure — but only 40 percent correctly answered a question about passwords, according to the survey results. An even quarter of respondents said they knew about encryption, but only seven percent correctly answered a quiz question on the subject.

After a wave of uprisings washed across the Middle East, observers noticed an undertow of state-sponsored censorship and surveillance, from attempts to monitor Facebook activity in Tunisia to Egypt's near-total blackout of Internet access. In the face of this, more respondents reported considering ease of use than security or a willingness to hand over data to a government when choosing a blog platform, social network or email service. Thirty-five percent of respondents ranked an email service's resistance to sharing information with government as one of their top three considerations when picking a service, for example.

What bloggers seemed to lack in technical expertise, they made up in self-censorship: According to the study, many bloggers reported censoring themselves or using obtuse language to avoid the wrath of their governments. Others described concealing the faces of people in photos or changing locations. Nearly half, however, reported that their full names and email addresses were on their blogs.

The survey went out in May to 580 bloggers who had been linked to by the international blog network Global Voices Online, and 98 completed the survey. The full results are here.

(With Becky Kazansky)