Study finds Wi-Fi location affects online privacy behavior

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Does sitting in a coffee shop versus at home influence a person’s willingness to disclose private information online? Does the on-screen appearance of a public location’s online “terms and conditions” have an effect? According to researchers at Penn State, the answer to both questions is “yes,” especially if the user has a tendency to instinctively distrust public wireless networks.

“In our study, we asked if location — where a person is physically located offline — makes a difference to how that person conducts himself or herself online,” said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects. “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 Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, some people maintain a mental shortcut, called “publicness heuristic,” which is a mindset that inhibits a person from revealing private things in public.

“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,” said Sundar, who worked with Maria Molina and Andrew Gambino, both doctoral candidates in mass communication.

The researchers recruited participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a globally distributed online workforce, to test online behaviors under various privacy-related scenarios. Specifically, they examined participant online behavior 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. The results will be presented today (May 8) at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland.

The team examined four types of online behavior — unethical behavior, ethical behavior, disclosure of financial information and disclosure of personal information — among participants. They did this by asking the participants questions such as, “Have you ever looked at pornographic material?” and asking them to rate, for example, their level of comfort in sharing their debt-to-loan ratio or their income.

The researchers assessed the participants’ publicness heuristic levels by asking questions about the extent to which they generally feel it is safe to manage 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.

The authors conclude their paper with a few recommendations for designers to increase users’ awareness of the security of their network connection in different locations.

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

According to Sundar, 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 a terms and conditions statement for ethical design practices,” he said.


The National Science Foundation supported this research.