Public Release: 

Grant to help find why people reveal information online

Penn State

Penn State researchers have received a $262,383 grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand why people disclose or withhold private information during online transactions.

Researchers from Penn State's College of Communications and College of Information Sciences and Technology will team up to determine how certain cues on mobile and web devices can inspire mental shortcuts -- heuristics -- that, in turn, can predict whether users trust or distrust online sites and social networks, according to S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory.

"We hope our findings result in more secure and trustworthy computing by promoting the design of better interfaces and by educating users about mental shortcuts that lead them to compromise their privacy when they go online," said Sundar, who serves as the lead researcher on the project.

The idea that heuristics play a role in privacy information disclosure departs from the assumption that disclosure is deliberate and systematic and carefully balances costs and benefits, said Sundar.

"This is why it was funded as an early concept grant for exploratory research, or an EAGER," he added.

EAGER grants are dedicated to potentially transformative ideas that are high risk and high payoff, according to the National Science Foundation.

The study may help researchers better understand the somewhat paradoxical behavior of many people with regard to online privacy. For example, researchers have noticed that some users reveal more private information than they admit. Other users indicate that certain controls on websites and social networks that are designed to help users tighten security can make them more concerned about security, not less.

The researchers said another paradox is that while users expect personalized information from sites and social networks, they do not wish to provide personal or private information to the companies that provide those services.

The project is structured to help the researchers produce scientific results in both behavioral studies and user interaction design, said Mary Beth Rosson, interim dean of the College of Information Sciences and Technology and co-lead researcher for the project.

"Often researchers do empirical studies and discuss design implications, but we will also have concrete design prototypes to evaluate and share," said Rosson. "This is one advantage of supporting collaborations between researchers like Dr. Sundar, who investigate social-behavioral topics, and people like myself, who design interactive systems."

The study will be broken down into three phases. During the first phase researchers will conduct interviews and surveys to identify how and why users reveal information online and the problems they have with security and privacy. Phase two will involve the design of interface cues and phase three will feature experiments to determine how interfaces can trigger mental shortcuts that may influence whether or not a user discloses private information.

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