While online social networks such as Facebook have increased our ability to interact and communicate with others, they also raise behavioral questions regarding privacy and security.
The work of Carnegie Mellon researcher Alessandro Acquisti focuses on what he calls the behavioral economics of privacy — in other words, understanding the trade-offs, the incentives and the behavioral and cognitive biases associated with protecting and revealing personal information.
"Social networking sites make it so easy, so immediate to broadcast personal information, that as users we end up forgetting that what was hastily published today on a profile intended for our peers may be saved for an unpredictable amount of time, and perhaps used — or abused — by others in a completely different context," explained Acquisti, who is an assistant professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School and a member of Carnegie Mellon CyLab.
He also noted that online social networks make it easy to publish pieces of personal data which are harmless, individually. But once those pieces of information are combined and connected, they could potentially lead to unpredictable consequences, such as the discovery of much more sensitive data not immediately available in the profile itself.
"That does not mean that we should fear or avoid these systems," Acquisti assured. "It means that, as with many new technologies, we should be aware of the fact that online social networks offer new exciting opportunities, but also new possible pitfalls."
Acquisti feels that understanding and acting on privacy and cybersecurity issues requires a 'holistic' approach in which technology, the law, economics and psychology are considered together — the kind of interdisciplinary work that has a long tradition at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School, in particular, and at Carnegie Mellon University in general.
"For instance, why do people say they care about privacy but do little to protect it? What pushes individuals to provide embarrassing — or even damaging — information about themselves online? Those are questions that my work addresses," he said.
Ultimately, he says he has two ambitious goals: to impact policy making and to gain a deeper understanding of human behavior in this area. He is convinced that combining economics and psychology will lead to a better understanding of privacy problems and the way individuals and organizations react to them.
"We must restrain from becoming paranoid about catastrophic scenarios in which any information we reveal will get used against us," Acquisti explained.
"But we can use a rule of thumb: do not write emails or publish things online that you would never want to find, one day, on the front page of the New York Times. Because when you are up for that CEO position or are a candidate for that court seat, the chances of that happening may be higher than they appear today."