MAY 11, 2019 4:24 PM PDT

How Private is Online Privacy?

WRITTEN BY: Nouran Amin

Ever wondered if sitting at a coffee shop versus at home influences your willingness to disclose private information online? According to a recent study by researchers at Penn State, the answer to the question is a "yes”.

The team found that participants who had a higher publicness heuristic perceived a public network — the coffee shop — as less secure than their home. Credit: Penn State IMAGE: © Getty Images / sturti

"In our study, we asked if location -- where a person is physically located offline -- makes a difference to how that person conducts himself or herself online," said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects. "We also wanted to see if other things that are privacy-related, like the provision of terms and conditions by the wireless provider and the presence of a VPN [the virtual private network] logo, make a difference in how people navigate their privacy online."

Sundar, who is also the co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, believes that some people maintain a mental shortcut, called "publicness heuristic”—the idea that a person will be prevented from revealing private things in public in their very own mindset.

"We wanted to know if people who hold onto that publicness heuristic more strongly are less likely to disclose personal information via public Wi-Fi," said Sundar, who worked with Maria Molina and Andrew Gambino, both doctoral candidates in mass communication.

To examine online behaviors, the researchers recruited participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a globally distributed online workforce. Participant online behavior was tested in four types of physical locations: a coffee shop, a university, an Airbnb and home. The online behavior was additionally compared through a simulation of those who were connected to Wi-Fi through a VPN versus a connection of those who did not receive such a cue as well as a connection between participants that included a "terms and conditions" cue versus no cue.

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The online behaviors were categorized as unethical, ethical, disclosure of financial information, and disclosure of personal information amongst participants. Additionally, participant publicness heuristic levels were assessed through questions concerning feelings of safety to manage personal business in public.

Using data form the study, researchers concluded a few recommendations in their publication. "For example, we suggested that designers could incorporate cues such as, 'Warning: this is a public network,' or 'VPN: anonymous browsing,'" said Molina. "These results indicate a need to leverage the positive heuristics triggered by location, VPN logo and a terms and conditions statement for ethical design practices," he said.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Source: Penn State

About the Author
  • Nouran earned her BS and MS in Biology at IUPUI and currently shares her love of science by teaching. She enjoys writing on various topics as well including science & medicine, global health, and conservation biology. She hopes through her writing she can make science more engaging and communicable to the general public.
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