A recent study finds that internet users will often give up private information more easily for sites that seem trustworthy.

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 Joinson.

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 didn't.

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 scams.

“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.

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