The trade-off: search results for personal information

Do you know how much and what kind of personal information you are trading each time you search for results online?

Anisha Fernando is a PhD student from the School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences researching ways to manage the flow of personal data in web searches whilst empowering users.

Recently presenting at the annual Australian Internet Governance Forum in Melbourne, Anisha talked about Internet technology that is inclusive without being invasive.

“Privacy is something we expect and it’s something we don’t miss until we lose it,” she says.

“The context is changing and having accesses to data and control of it has evolved.

“Now it’s about understanding what are the instances in which we share data and when is it sensitive and when is it not.”

“I’m working to understand what people think about privacy and how do their privacy expectations match up with their values, because there seems to be a gap in how technology meets our expectations.”

“We need to know what privacy-centric values to embed in the design of technology,” Anisha says.

Supervised by Assoc. Prof. Helen Ashman at the University of South Australia, Anisha’s interests include privacy, personal data, search, personalisation and user experience.

The three-year project is funded by a 2012 grant from the .au Domain Association Foundation, held by Helen Ashman, Tina Du and Kirsten Wahlstrom at the School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences. This grant from the auDA Foundation enabled Anisha to work with internationally renowned researchers in personalisation – Prof Vincent Wade at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and Dr. Tim Brailsford at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus.

“These collaborative research visits were really interesting learning experiences in my PhD journey,” Anisha says.

“I broadened my knowledge about my research topic and methods, experienced different research cultures and learnt from different experts in my research area, given the interdisciplinary nature of my research.

“There’s a lot of work being done on people’s attitudes towards privacy in the US and with strong data protection legislation in Europe.

“But in Australia at present, there isn’t much work done on assessing expectations about privacy, particularly around search.

“So by looking at how personal data flows online and mapping the expectations that people have, I hope to bring these two disparate, but important aspects together,” says Anisha.

Anisha ran controlled experiments to look at how people search online followed by a recent survey online to capture people’s privacy expectations.

“From literature we know that there are different types of attitudes people have towards privacy,” Anisha says.

“Generally, there are three different types: people who are really concerned, people who are not so concerned and people who say they don’t mind sharing information if they benefit in some way.

“I ran a set of controlled experiments, exploring how people search using popular search terms like Grumpy Cat, Nelson Mandela and FIFA World Cup, and automated a search script that ran search queries using these search terms across commercial search engines like Google and privacy-enhanced search engines like DuckDuckGo.

“I looked at what data is actually transferred online, which of that information contains personal-identifiable information and which of those actually impact the relevance of those search results.

“We can infer that not all of the information that we transfer is necessary to get a search result that we are happy with,” says Anisha.

Anisha explains that clearing cookies, browser history or removing personally-identifiable data can still provide satisfactory search results without compromising your privacy.

“Cookies are set to identify a person,” Anisha says.

From a business point of view, there are commercial interests in identifying people. “For example if person x is searching for the lowest price on an airfare, it is highly likely commercial organisations know person x is searching for this.”

“So the next time you go back to that site, that cookie is sent back saying person x searched for this previously.”

“So, I’m trying to understand how people actually value their privacy, in what form and what kind of interventions in terms of technology design do we need to be aware of so that we have privacy embedded into the design.”

“It’s about looking at how privacy values can be embedded in the design of technology that competes with other values.”

“We want to share, we want it to be convenient, we don’t want to put too much effort in and still get the results we need.”

“It’s about exploring what are the ways we can balance those competing interests and values,” says Anisha.

An advocate for girls and women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Anisha led the Adelaide Girl Geek Coffees chapter from 2013-2015.

“The core vision of this initiative, across Australia and international chapters, according to founder Miriam Hochwald is to create interpersonal support and a networking space to discuss the challenges facing girls and women in STEM and other related STEM topics.”

“Being a woman in technology, I’ve found having access to support for learning and development is valuable. By volunteering to lead a chapter, organise networking and mentoring events, and collaborate with industry and university partners, it was rewarding to see others have similar positive and enriching experiences through these interactions. This was a good way to get involved with and contribute to the local STEM community,” says Anisha.

To find out more about Anisha’s research on privacy and about participating in the project, visit the project website here

Read more stories like this at Research Edge

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