Internet privacy: what makes people more or less worried about it?

Internet privacy: what makes people more or less worried about it?

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

Internet privacy stories in recent years, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns over the new WhatsApp privacy policy, have sensitized us to the risk of putting our lives online. This affects people in different ways: some will up their privacy settings, some will stop using social media or shopping online, some won’t change anything at all. Frank Chan (ESSEC Business School) and his colleagues Weiyin Hong (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) and James Thong (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) explored the drivers and inhibitors of Internet privacy concern in their recent paper in the Journal of Business Ethics to uncover how people form their relationship to Internet privacy, finding that these factors fall into four dimensions: environmental, individual, information management, and interaction management.

What impacts our relationship to Internet privacy?

To conceptualize their model, the researchers used multidimensional development theory, which proposes that privacy situations can be classified using the four dimensions described above, since someone’s privacy concerns will stem from a combination of their environment, their experience, and their interaction with other implicated parties. This provides a thorough understanding of how our relationship to Internet privacy develops, and why it presents differently for different people.

Exploring the person-privacy relationship

The researchers collected data from over 2000 people in Hong Kong, including people with diverse demographics and varying Internet usage. By including participants living in an Asian city, they are able to advance the existing research, which has largely surveyed Western populations. This offers us insight into how different cultures may have different relationships to the web. Hong Kong has a collectivist culture, so people tend to focus on what’s best for the group over what’s best for the individual; people also tend to be more willing to accept unequal power distributions and are more at ease with ambiguity. Additionally, the culture of Hong Kong is more pragmatic, and people are more likely to control their indulgences. All this makes for a different picture than we would find in a country like France or the United States.

We are a product of our environment

In their study, the researchers used familiarity with government legislation to represent the environment dimension, meaning how much participants knew about the laws in place to protect their personal data. They found that if people were more familiar with government legislation, they were typically less concerned about Internet privacy.

Me, myself, and the Internet

Our individual differences also shape our relationship to the Internet. These factors can be sorted into three different buckets, the first being our past experience, in this case past privacy invasions. Second is our personality, here represented by people’s tendency to avoid risk in general. People who had previously experienced privacy invasions and people with a greater propensity to avoid risk were more concerned about Internet privacy. The third is demographics: for this study, the researchers analyzed people’s Internet knowledge, meaning how familiar they are with the Internet and its privacy concerns, finding that the more Internet-savvy participants were less worried about Internet privacy concerns.

It’s all (someone else’s) fault: the individual-environment interplay

Finally, our interactions with other parties involved in Internet privacy impact our own individual relationship with it over time. This section has two components: information management and interaction management.

The first of these, information management, refers to how we manage what we disclose by weighing the benefits and risks. They gathered data on information sensitivity, finding that people were more concerned about Internet privacy when they perceived the information they had to disclose as sensitive, especially for those who had not experienced a past privacy invasion, who were more risk avoidant, and were more Internet-savvy. Information sensitivity also emerged as the strongest driver of Internet privacy concerns among all the factors studied. They also looked at the benefits of information disclosure, like pleasure, novelty, and saving time or money, discovering that when people felt like the benefits of sharing information were high, they were less worried about Internet privacy concerns.

The second, interaction management, refers to our interactions with our online environment, meaning how we aim to make the most of this exchange. For this study, participants were asked about how a website’s privacy protection practices impacted their concerns and how the website’s social presence, i.e. creating an interface that looks more like a physical interaction with a seller to come closer to that face-to-face experience.  Both of these factors reduced users’ Internet privacy concerns, with the effect of social presence boosted for those with greater Internet knowledge and a stronger effect of social presence for those who did not report previous privacy invasions. Social presence was the most powerful inhibitor of Internet privacy concerns, showing that websites can make their users more comfortable by tweaking their interface. 

What does all this mean?

By exploring the factors that shape our relationship to Internet privacy, Dr. Chan and his colleagues provide a nuanced, thorough understanding of what increases and what reduces our privacy concerns. Using a Hong Kong-based sample also expanded the previous research, which was largely done using Western samples with different cultural values. This tells us that both individual and environmental factors impact Internet privacy concerns, and that how we interact with our environment also plays an important role. We now know that the sensitivity of the information we are asked to share online is the #1 driver of Internet privacy concerns and that a website’s social presence is the strongest way to reduce those concerns.

How can decision-makers apply this information?

For governments

·   Government legislation is key in protecting our privacy in the first place. From these findings, we see that it is equally important to make sure people understand relevant legislation, making awareness and education programs a useful initiative. Internet education programs, to form more savvy citizens, would also help make people more comfortable online.

·   Governments should also ensure that they monitor compliance with regulations to protect their citizens’ rights.

For individuals

·   It is also up to the individual to be informed about available privacy protection technologies and legislations and reading policies on websites they use (yes, reading the terms and conditions can be useful!)

·   Individuals should also seek out Internet education programs if they are not already an experienced user, as this can help reduce their anxieties and make navigating the Internet a more pleasant experience.

For website designers

·   Website designers should consider balancing what information they ask for with what they offer in return, since people are more concerned when asked to disclose sensitive information. If it is necessary to ask for that kind of information, website designers should explain why this is needed and how they will protect personal information.

·   Using technical features to protect privacy is important, like the inclusion of privacy statements and allowing people to customize cookies, but so is the website’s actual interface. Making the website more personal, like mimicking a physical store design or including a picture of a salesperson, can improve the social presence.

·   To avoid incurring issues, website designers also need to carefully design their interfaces to avoid raising privacy worries in the first place, by offering features like customized privacy protection.

In our increasingly online world, we live much of our lives online, from chatting to friends, sharing photos, grocery shopping, entertaining ourselves, exercising, and more. The possibilities are endless, but the privacy risk is real, and we are increasingly aware of that. By researching factors that increase and reduce our Internet privacy concerns, Dr. Chan and his colleagues create a nuanced understanding of how our relationship to Internet privacy evolves, an understanding that has practical implications for governments and legislators, individuals, and website designers.


Hong, W., Chan, F. K., & Thong, J. Y. (2019). Drivers and inhibitors of internet privacy concern: a multidimensional development theory perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 1-26.

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