Understanding trade-offs between connectedness and online privacy during crises

May 26, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Because of the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, there has been a surge in online activity as users turn to the internet to support routine social activities, such as virtual playdates and book clubs. And while these activities are helping individuals seek support and build community, they’re also leaving them more vulnerable to oversharing personal information that could be used against them.

Now, with a study funded by a Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation, a team of researchers from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology is exploring how users’ attitudes toward privacy change during times of crises, and whether oversharing has been expedited or even encouraged during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People voluntarily self-disclose information in part to build their social support structures, so it’s natural during this crisis, where physical social distancing measures are in place, that we’d see an increase in self-disclosure as people look online to feel more socially connected,” explained Anna Squicciarini, associate professor of IST and co-investigator on the project. “But this connectedness can come at a cost.”

That cost, the researchers posit in preliminary findings published to the preprint server arXiv, is that users are more vulnerable to privacy risks. While individuals may be finding more community, they’re also leaving themselves open to harassment, identity theft or even discrimination by employers and creditors.

To understand this issue, the researchers are analyzing millions of comments reporting on COVID-19 on Twitter, Reddit and online news platforms, and then comparing trends of social disclosure from these sources to those seen during other crises — such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The team will also analyze posts are in Italian through a collaboration with The University of Insubria in Italy, allowing them to evaluate cultural and infrastructural differences at varying points during the pandemic lifecycle.

“Our goal is motivated by the need to better understand how trust is established in online settings and whether that process is expedited during times of crisis,” explained Sarah Rajtmajer, assistant professor of IST and co-investigator on the project. 

Through their study, the team — which includes IST doctoral students Taylor Blose and Prasanna Umar — aims to produce annotated datasets and data-informed models to facilitate understanding of the threats to individual privacy in the context of acute crises. Ultimately, they hope to provide insights into how online sharing and privacy boundaries evolve during a crisis.

Said Rajtmajer, “If we can understand these relationships, we can understand more about whether individuals are more susceptible to deviant actors or general privacy breaches.”

Last Updated May 28, 2020