The impact of technology on privacy is often covered in the media, but how aware of privacy issues are we, especially when it comes to how our information is shared online and on social media?
A doctoral student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock wants to know.
Terry Williams hopes to complete her dissertation, “A Study of Privacy Awareness in the Digital Age and the Influence of Knowledge Over Time,” and graduate by May from UALR’s integrated computing program.
Her research will be compiled from a set of five surveys being delivered to participants’ email accounts a week apart, with help from online tool LimeSurvey.
The question her dissertation seeks to answer is: “What is the general awareness of privacy issues today, and does it change when you provide some knowledge over a fixed period of time?”
“I think privacy as a topic is really important these days,” Williams said. “The internet of things is coming, and medical devices [will be] collecting data. ... Part of me thinks it’s good for people to know, period.”
She explained, “I think that the more aware people are about everything, maybe it’ll change the decision you make. Maybe it won’t. … Conscious decisions are better than unconscious ones.”
Williams isn’t new to her field: She has been a cybersecurity professional for more than 30 years and is seeking the doctorate to further her university teaching career.
Her experience includes 14 years as an adjunct instructor at ITT Technical Institute (which has since shut down); 10 years as an information technology manager at the Arkansas State Crime Lab; four years as a self-employed consultant with clients that included the state, the Junior League of Little Rock and FedEx Corp.; and one year as a client/server programmer for Acxiom Corp.
Williams, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in business administration from the University of Memphis, hopes this research will do more than just earn her a new degree. She hopes her findings will influence both private and public privacy policies.
Williams’ project builds on statistics published in 2003 by researcher Alan Westin, who died in 2013.
His stats showed that people fell into three categories: privacy pragmatic (64 percent), privacy fundamentalist (26 percent) and privacy unconcerned (10 percent).
According to a 2003 Harris Interactive Inc. news release, fundamentalists feel they’ve lost a lot of their privacy and are strongly resistant to any further erosion of it.
Pragmatists are also concerned, but they are more willing than fundamentalists to allow people to access and use their personal information when they understand the reasons for its use, when they see tangible benefits for so doing and when they believe care is being taken to prevent the misuse of their information.
The unconcerned group is just that when it comes to privacy.
Williams expects her surveys to conclude that even more people are privacy pragmatic now.
About 200 people have signed up to complete her set of surveys. Around 50 have finished them so far, she said. Participants must be 18 or older and social media users. Anyone who meets those conditions can sign up at this link, TLWilliams.me.
Williams, now a graduate teaching/research assistant at UALR, said a class on privacy and data protection piqued her interest in privacy as her dissertation topic.
She was driven to conduct this research because “people just don’t know what’s going on with all their data.” Those who do know don’t think about it, she said, and “a lot of people, I think, just don’t have a clue, unfortunately.”
Williams wants to help remedy that. She says that while people are protective of information like their phone numbers, addresses, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers, they often aren’t aware that companies track their online searches, purchases, “likes,” “retweets” and more.
She also said her adviser, Nitin Agarwal, holder of the UALR Jerry L. Maulden Entergy Endowed Chair, helped her narrow the focus for her dissertation.
He hadn’t returned a call to Arkansas Business as of press time, but in a university news release Agarwal said: “It is unreasonable to expect social media companies to intervene and reverse the information-sharing behaviors. But as information privacy researchers and policy makers, we owe it to ourselves that we educate others and spread awareness about these risks.
“Terry’s research is a step forward in this direction. The research will inform privacy awareness education and training programs, policy and decision making, and general awareness about information sharing.”