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University of Michigan School of Information


Users feel both creeped out, unworried over online privacy

Monday, 05/23/2016

While internet users feel concern about online data collection on some levels, the practice does not bother them much on others, a study by UMSI researchers suggests.

The study, “It’s Creepy, But It Doesn’t Bother Me,” led by UMSI PhD student Chanda Phelan, took Honorable Mention at the 2016 Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 16). Co-authors were UMSI associate professor Cliff Lampe and UMSI professor and associate dean for research and faculty affairs Paul Resnick

Internet users must constantly weigh tradeoffs between privacy and convenience, and designers of online systems must grapple with uncertainty about users’ privacy preferences, which are often contradictory. For example, people often express high levels of concern about privacy that are not reflected in their actual behavior, a phenomenon known as the privacy paradox.

To explore the source of these contradictions, researchers first invited students enrolled in an introductory undergraduate course to receive class credit by signing up for a study on social media use and downloading a Chrome browser extension, MTogether (dubbed “Media Monitor” in the article), that logged visits to social media and other websites. They later invited students in the course to participate in the privacy study in exchange for class credit.

They interviewed 37 of these students about their social media habits and privacy views, including their experiences with Media Monitor. They found that while users knew that privacy does not truly exist on social media, they were not especially concerned about privacy because they avoid sharing private information on such networks. "I  keep everything to myself that I don't want people [on Facebook] to know in the first place,” said one study participant.

Users also expressed little concern over government surveillance, viewing it as inevitable and unlikely to impact them personally. On the other hand, participants showed varying levels of concern about the collection of browsing data by browser extensions or companies and about what level of data collection was okay or what presented the highest risks.

The results suggested that when faced with privacy concerns such as data collection, users feel simultaneously concerned and unworried, and that these feelings can be affected by a number of factors, including trust, the social presence of data collectors, and the level of additional risk they felt at a new intrusion.

Based on their analysis of interview transcripts, the researchers found that these mixed feelings result from the interplay of intuitive concern, or a “gut feeling” about an intrusion, and considered concern, or a more deliberate analysis of its risks and benefits.

This interplay can create a privacy paradox in two ways. One is when a user does not engage in considered concern but simply acts on her intuitive concern, a finding that fits in with previous research in the area. The second is when a user has a high level of intuitive concern but accepts and intrusion anyway due to low considered concern, although residual concern may remain that could continue to affect behavior.

“The challenge for future designers is to differentiate between the two causes of a privacy paradox in particular situations and respond with appropriate strategies that help people make better privacy choices,” the authors added.

The study received financial support from Google’s Social Interactions Focused Program. It can be read here.

- UMSI News Service