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Penn State Researchers: Online Privacy Fosters Selfish Decisions

by on January 12, 2016 6:00 AM
University Park, PA

It’s no surprise we’re still hearing about online privacy and how online platforms foster a much different set of rules and morals.

“As social media makes data increasingly interconnected, preserving one’s own privacy while ignoring the privacy rights of others may make everybody’s data more vulnerable,” said Jens Grossklags, an assistant professor in Penn State’s College of Information, Science and Technology, in a press release.

On Dec. 14, a team of Penn State researchers reported at the International Conference on Information Systems in Fort Worth, Texas, that people are more concerned about sharing their own personal information with third-party app developers than they are about sharing their friends’ information.

The problem, Grossklags said, is known as interdependent privacy. It means that the privacy of individual consumers depends not only on their own online decisions, but the decisions of their friends.

Third-party apps are applications that are created by a developer other than the manufacturer of the device. So, iPhone users, that means any application that Apple doesn’t make is developed by a third party.

According to a Penn State press release, the researchers found that participants valued data in their own social media profiles at $2.31 and valued their friend’s social media data at $1.56, when the information was irrelevant to the app’s function. When the data was necessary for the app’s function, the economic value of their own data dropped by $.27, but the value of their friends’ data dropped by $.58.

“It turns out they place very little value on their friend’s privacy,” said Yu Pu, a doctoral candidate in the College of IST, in a Dec. 14 statement.

That’s a problem, though, when some of these apps misuse that information — a decision completely out of the friend’s control.

Many of these apps request access to users’ social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google. If users agree to the prompt, the third-party developers are granted access to that account, which may also include access to the users friends’ accounts, depending on the type of permission requested.

“It’s reasonable for a birthday app, which serves as a reminder of friends’ birthdays, to collect birthday information of either users or users’ friends,” said Pu in an email.

However, Pu said, some developers insist on accessing users’ accounts even if that information is not necessary to the functionality of the app. The incentive for the developers can be the ability to monetize the users’ information.

“The Wall Street Journal reported that popular apps may transmit users’ personal information to various advertising and data tracking firms,” she said.

In the birthday app scenario, developers may honestly want access to their users’ account to improve the user experience. But, in other instances, it might benefit developers to sell more sensitive information, such as location and photos, to other parties including advertising or data tracking firms.

“Such data collection practice significantly breaches people's privacy,” Pu said. “These parties may use such information for socially undesirable activities, such as targeted ads, price discrimination and so on.”

That is not to say that all apps are out to sell users' and their friends’ personal information, according to the researchers. According to a different group of researchers, which includes Gergely Biczok and Pern Hui Chia at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, about two percent of apps request friends’ personal information and about 17 percent request users’ information.

Pu said that she still recommends that people carefully read terms in each individual request before granting that app permission.

“If we find there is certain information that we do not want to share with the app, we may simply give up installing it,” she said.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.
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