Online Privacy Is A Matter Of Trust

November 27, 2007

ESRCLast week, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council reported on research it funded into ‘self-disclosure’ of personal information online:

Internet Users Give Up Privacy In Exchange For Trust

The research […] revealed that internet users will reveal more personal information online if they believe they can trust the organisation that requests the information. ‘Even people who have previously demonstrated a high level of caution regarding online privacy will accept losses to their privacy if they trust the recipient of their personal information’ says Dr Adam Joinson, who led the study.

Self-disclosure is currently a big issue, not only on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, but also personal banking sites and in internet shopping.

Dr Joinson found that when a website is designed to ‘look trustworthy’, users will be more likely to divulge personal data. But more important than website design is the reputation of the company behind the website. This is closely tied to whether or not the user trusts the company, and therefore whether they will give over personal details.

I recently registered for free with New York Times online, and I was put off because of the level of personal information requested — why do you need to know our household income just so I can read a news article? Although NY Times is a large and (potentially) trustworthy organization, this level of detail seemed like prying to me, and I chose ‘prefer not to say’, which — incidentally — is at the bottom of the drop-down menu — another subject touched on in this report.

This is a particularly timely report, given that it comes days after the unprecedented loss of CDs containing the personal data (names, addresses, dates of birth, and bank details) of 25 million people. If we can’t trust the government with our personal information, should we really be happily entering it into Facebook — or maybe you trust corporations like Facebook more than the government…

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