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.

Learn more about internet privacy:

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.
You May Also Like
APR 01, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
APR 01, 2020
Discovery of a new molecule could improve storage of big data
New research from scientists at the University of Limerick's Bernal Institute details the discovery of a molecule th ...
APR 09, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
APR 09, 2020
Origami for Science - How Paper-Folding Inspires Spacecraft Landing Tech
Imagine an egg fall to the ground at a counter height spot: at the moment of landing, compression, the pushing force, cr ...
APR 16, 2020
Technology
APR 16, 2020
Technology Lights The Way For Safer Imaging Techniques
Current imaging techniques rely on the possibility of harmful radiation. To challenge that, researchers at John Hopkins ...
APR 23, 2020
Technology
APR 23, 2020
Device That Mimic Brain Signaling
A decade ago, researchers hoped for a frontier of neuromorphic computing using a device known as ‘memristors&rsquo ...
APR 27, 2020
Space & Astronomy
APR 27, 2020
Hubble Snaps Gorgeous Photo for 30th Anniversary
The Hubble Space Telescope surpassed its 30th year in space on Friday, April 24th. Being that it’s one of the most ...
MAY 10, 2020
Technology
MAY 10, 2020
Forecasting Urbanization for The Next 100 Years
The new simulation model created by researchers at the University of Delaware addresses the concept of urbanization. The ...
Loading Comments...