Information Privacy

France Belanger is making online privacy easier to control

Privacy helper keeps your information safe.
A MOBILE APP, "Privacy Helper," helps users navigate
the maze of privacy settings on their mobile phones,
including location and Internet browsing settings.

Your computer pings to announce the arrival of an email — Amazon is notifying you that your favorite author has published a new book. You log into Facebook to tell your book club, and see an advertisement in your news feed for the restaurant that you were checking out on Yelp yesterday. Maybe it is a good day for dinner on the patio? You open your weather app to check, and the temperature for your autosaved location immediately pops up.

The privacy paradox

In spite of research indicating a growing concern for online privacy, Internet users exchange personal information for the convenience and functionality of online services on a daily basis.

We call it the privacy paradox, says France Belanger, professor of accounting and information systems. We want to protect ourselves, but we want the goodies.

Belanger has been researching ways to understand and improve individuals’ information privacy practices for nearly a decade. She and her colleague Robert Crossler (Ph.D./ACIS ’09), assistant professor of information systems at Mississippi State University, were recently awarded a Design Science Award from the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences Information Systems Society. The society created a new award category —Outstanding Design Science Research Stream— in recognition of their significant body of privacy research.

Giving away data

Online privacy is distinct from online security, which encompasses efforts to mitigate the theft of personal information, she explains. Most violations of online privacy are not illegal but rather the results of tacit consumer consent.

Businesses have self-regulated through privacy policies, but they also see the immense value of information and tend to collect as much data as possible, Belanger says. We click the button and accept without actually reading. We are willingly giving away a whole lot of data about ourselves.

Better privacy practices

According to the Pew Research Center, less than 3 percent of individuals actively safeguard their privacy online. Users are either unaware, unable, or unwilling to take the time required to protect their privacy, she notes. They also see benefits to giving away information.

France Belanger
France Belanger

With these obstacles in mind, Belanger and Crossler are designing privacy tools that emphasize usability, convenience, and personalization. We’re trying to find the best ways to not only educate people, but also have them actually adopt better privacy practices, Belanger says.

The pair’s most recent project is the Privacy Helper mobile app, which received funding from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment at Virginia Tech.

A privacy app to the rescue

Privacy Helper teaches users about the features on their phones that can affect privacy — including location-based services, shared app access, browsing privacy, and ad tracking. A voiceover guide helps users make changes to their privacy settings as they listen to step-by-step instructions.

The key to Privacy Helper is its flexibility in giving users better control over how they share personal information, says Belanger. The app allows people to align their smartphone settings with their personal views on information privacy.

Research shows that yes, privacy impacts willingness to transact, but much of the willingness to transact is related to convenience — or the ability to personalize one’s interactions with companies, Belanger explains.

The calculus of privacy

Consumers weigh the costs and benefits of giving away personal information in a process Belanger calls privacy calculus. For example, sharing location data with a mapping application offers users a clear benefit, but there is no value in providing this information to a mobile game.

Fair enough, some Internet users argue, but what is the harm of Angry Birds knowing that someone with my name lives in my city?

Leaving digital breadcrumbs

The whole issue of privacy is putting little bits of information together, Belanger says. We leave a digital trace online, and if you put the pieces together, you get a picture.

The consequences of oversharing information can range from annoying — think targeted ads and spam email — to dangerous — as in cases of identity theft and cyberstalking.

Belanger and Crossler will make Privacy Helper available to the public after they complete usability testing. They are designing a program called Mobile Privacy Education Training and Awareness that will test the efficacy of both Privacy Helper and conventional classroom and web-based training programs.

The end of privacy?

Belanger is also interested in reaching out to groups that are particularly vulnerable to online privacy intrusions. She is partnering with the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech to develop privacy education programs specifically for older adults, and she hopes to train children on Privacy Helper as well. (She previously worked on a team that developed a proof-of-concept for a browser extension called POCKET — Parental Online Consent for Kids’ Electronics Transactions).

Some people say privacy is done, but you can’t just give up, Belanger says. You can’t hide completely, but you don’t necessarily want to give away everything either. It’s about balance.

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