Do South Africans care about their privacy online? Information Systems Masters graduate Heather Parker investigates

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Do South Africans care about their privacy online?
Do South Africans care about their privacy online?

By Sam van Heerden, Masters in Philosophy student

We cannot use the internet today without giving away our personal information. Everything, from social media and online shopping to reading the news, requires you to sign up and disclose personal data, while websites continually ask you to accept ‘cookies’ that track your location and IP address. But do South Africans care? Recent Masters in Information Systems graduate Heather Parker focused her research on this question.  

Although people are often aware that online platforms are collecting and storing their data, they tend to dismiss this fact. “The findings [of my research] indicate that users are able to disregard their concerns [about privacy] due to a resigned and apathetic attitude towards [it],” said Parker. 

The world of social media also has an increasingly important place in our day-to-day lives. Parker explains that people often feel pressured to have an online presence to avoid social isolation and to garner approval from peers. “FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out', can outweigh the potential risks of information-sharing online,” Parker explained. 

Does FOMO undermine our privacy? 

Underpinning her research is the idea that privacy is a two-way street. Although things can be done in the realm of policy to protect people’s personal information, such as South Africa’s new Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, internet users also need to value their personal information and privacy for efforts to be effective. Understanding this behaviour is central to strengthening personal privacy online, which is what Parker’s field, ‘behavioural information security’, aims to do. 

According to Parker, people are more likely to limit the amount of personal information they share online if they value it more. 

Encouraging people to value their personal data is a complicated task, especially given the social incentives to share one’s life experiences on social media and the effort that information protection can involve (like scrolling through a four-page Terms and Conditions document on Facebook). 

“Having experienced a previous privacy violation encourages the protection of information and limited disclosure,” explained Parker. But the point is to encourage personal data protection before violations occur. 

Parker’s research points towards one possibility for motivating awareness and it involves doing something many avoid: looking at one’s online data record. Some platforms, such as Facebook, allow users to download all the data and information that the company has on them. This can show users just how much they are exposed. 

“Seeing the extent of their online record makes people more aware of the value they assign to their information,” said Parker, “This awareness of what is stored, and the consequences of this data collection being compromised, could provide users with the incentive to protect their privacy online.”