Study finds Wi-Fi location affects online privacy behavior

Sitting in a coffee shop versus at home influence a person's willingness to disclose private information online.


The speed of technology has far outpaced the security of the technology. For example, free public wireless connections have always left users vulnerable to attack from hackers.

This is the reason, location influence a person’s willingness to disclose private information online. What’s more, the on-screen appearance of a public location’s online “terms and conditions” also have an effect. Both facts become true when the user has a tendency to instinctively distrust public wireless networks.

During the study, scientists wanted to check if a person’s location offline makes a difference in how that person conducts himself or herself online.

S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects said, “We also wanted to see if other things that are privacy-related, like the provision of terms and conditions by the wireless provider and the presence of a VPN (the virtual private network) logo, make a difference in how people navigate their privacy online.”

According to him, some people maintain a mental shortcut, called “publicness heuristic,” which is a mindset that inhibits a person from revealing private things in public.”

He said, “We wanted to know if people who hold onto that publicness heuristic more strongly are less likely to disclose personal information via public Wi-Fi.”

For the study, scientists involved participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk and tested their online behavior: unethical behavior, ethical behavior, disclosure of financial information and disclosure of personal information, in four types of physical location: a coffee shop, a university, an Airbnb and home.

They also compared online behavior through a simulation comparing participants who connected to Wi-Fi through a VPN — indicated by the presence of a VPN icon in their connection window — and those who did not receive such a cue, as well as between participants whose connection window included a “terms and conditions” cue and those who did not receive such a cue.

For this, they asked participants questions like, ‘Have you ever looked at pornographic material?’ They then asked participants to rate their level of comfort while sharing their debt-to-loan ratio or their income.

Scientists also determine participants’ publicness heuristic levels by asking them questions about the extent to which they generally feel it is safe to manage a personal business in public.

The team found that participants who had a higher publicness heuristic perceived a public network — the coffee shop — as less secure than their home or a university network, and as a result, disclosed less information and said they participated in fewer unethical behaviors.

Participants rated the Airbnb network as being more secure than a coffee shop network and were willing to disclose information when the terms and conditions cue was present, even without a secure VPN connection. Participants were least likely in most settings to disclose information or behave unethically when no VPN logo and no terms and conditions were presented.

Scientists suggest that this study with few recommendations for designers to increase users’ awareness of the security of their network connection in different locations.

Maria Molina, a doctoral candidate in mass communication said, “For example, we suggested that designers could incorporate cues such as, ‘Warning: this is a public network,’ or ‘VPN: anonymous browsing.”

Sundar said, “It is important for designers to make people aware that they are in a public space, so they can make good decisions about their online behavior. These results indicate a need to leverage the positive heuristics triggered by location, VPN logo and terms and conditions statement for ethical design practices.”