Researchers want us to stop giving away personal information online

Researchers are studying why we willingly give away so much of our data online – and if there’s anything that would make us a little more cautious.

Two academics from the University of Alabama, Dr Sandra Carpenter from the psychology department, and Dr Feng Zhu, an assistant professor of computer science, have been awarded $464,000 from the National Science Foundation for what they believe is the first study into how we’re psychologically manipulated by companies on the internet.

They discovered early in their work together that in experiments where people were asked all kinds of personal information – from something benign like their favourite hobby to something that puts them at risk of identity theft, like their social security number – people were more than willing to tell all.

When they told participants that the data they were collecting was for a third party (although none of it was actually stored), they found that people were between three and five times more likely to divulge personal information if there was reciprocity – in other words, if there’s some kind of prize or reward on offer, we’re more willing to tell them all our business. (You know the kind of thing: ‘To enter our competition to win a used mug, simply Like this page and give us access to your Facebook friends list, your mother’s maiden name, and your best friend’s favourite ice cream.’)

The researchers are now working to find out what types of warning messages might encourage us to keep schtum. Their inspiration indicates just how much of a problem they think routine full disclosure can be: they’re looking at which warnings for toxic chemicals hold people’s attention the most. They hope to translate what they learn into the creation of a safety plugin or app to keep us safer on the web in future.

Image by Intel Free Press via Wikimedia Commons.

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Diane Shipley

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