A study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
finds that internet users will often give up more private information to
websites and organizations that appear to be trustworthy.
“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 study leader, Dr. Adam
The project, Privacy and Self-Disclosure Online, is the
first of its kind. Rather than taking the word of users, their actual habits
and responses were studied using various queues, including the look and feel of
websites, and how questions pertaining to personal information were phrased and
the options available in such questions.
The central idea of the project was to ascertain how
subjects would respond to websites that seemed more or less trustworthy. As
expected, users were more apt to give up private information to websites that
seemed more trustworthy, and act in a more guarded manner to websites that
In terms of how users responded to questions in particular,
researchers found that if an option like “I prefer not to say” appears on the
list of available choice, subjects were much less likely to disclose
information. In the same token, the more broad a response could be, the wider
the scale for an answer that represents their salary for instance, the more
likely users offered information.
The results of the research are important for different
types of internet services, government websites and social networking sites
possibly topping the list. The data could help sites look more alluring to
users by making them feel safer, something social networking sites like
Facebook and MySpace will benefit from. In the same way, they could be used by
malicious data thieves who prey on individuals not well-versed in internet
“One of the most interesting aspects of our findings is that
even people who genuinely have a high level of concern regarding privacy online
may act in a way that is contrary to their stated attitudes when they come
across a particular set of conditions,” said Dr Joinson.