The Strange Way People Perceive Privacy Online

From NextGov:

If you knew someone was rifling through your things at work, or suspiciously idling near your house every night, you might go to extra lengths to secure yourself. Maybe you’d start locking important documents away in a cabinet, or invest in a home alarm system. And if you knew someone was trying to access your email accounts, you’d probably think to strengthen your password.

That’s what Stanislav Mamonov, a business-school professor at Montclair State University, assumed at the outset of an experiment whose results were published earlier this year. Mamonov recruited more than 400 people to complete surveys that asked them a few questions about their attitudes toward online privacy, and required them to secure their answers with a password.

Before answering the questions, about half of survey-takers read four news stories that had something to do with government. The other half read four articles specifically about government surveillance. Mamonov expected the latter group would be primed to make more complex and secure passwords, because the specter of government snooping would be on their minds.

But the opposite was true. The participants who had just read about electronic spying created significantly worse passwords than the others.

The reason, Mamonov thinks, has a lot to do with people’s perceptions of surveillance. He guessed study participants would have wanted to protect themselves against it; instead, he says, the magnitude of the threat seems to have instilled a sense of helplessness that made them less likely to put an effort into securing themselves.

Most of Mamonov’s research focuses on the role of perception in the online world. He’s also spent a lot of time considering the role of perceived norms in people’s relationships with the social media platforms they use every day—and whether those perceived norms are, in fact, more important than …

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