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Strangers in the net

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about privacy and security over the past few weeks, as demonstrated by a range of blog entries:

This time I’m intrigued about how we use the net socially.

Via mobile and laptop, tablet and TV, we now exchange lots and lots of personal information with anyone and everyone.

I’ve often said this can be dangerous.

By way of example, I use the story of tracking down a bank’s call centre manager via facebook, and using her family photos to find out her behaviours and habits. Then I might hold her kids at ransom, unless she defrauds the bank.

It is so much easier via facebook where there is no privacy.

Unfortunately, the story above has actually happened several times with banks that I’m familiar with, so the fiction has become fact.

But what is truly disturbing is how the nature of remote chat allows any stranger to nurture any other stranger to do what they want.

We know this is true with children, where paedophiles groom youngsters to reveal themselves.

That’s awful.

It’s children, right?

But what about adults?

Could you be groomed?

Sexually or for other purposes.

Such as by criminals?

This struck me as I remember an early study about such social interactions by Dr Adam Joinson of Bath University, who has spent a long time studying remote interaction and has found consistently that we self-disclose far more to strangers over a remote connection than we ever would to friends and family face-to-face.

In 2001, Dr Joinson published the results of various studies in a paper titled: “Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity”, and consistently found that electronic chat is characterised by high levels of self-disclosure.

In the first study, significantly higher levels of spontaneous self-disclosure were found in computer-mediated compared to face-to-face discussions. In another, visually anonymous participants disclosed significantly more information about themselves than non-visually anonymous participants.

And he’s still doing it today, with his latest publication: “Unpacking the nature of ‘true commitment’ in Facebook”, published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 2010, Volume 68, pages 719-728.

The other study I remember well was conducted by Lisa Collins Tidwell and Joseph B. Walther.

They published a paper in 2002 entitled: “Computer-Mediated Communication Effects on Disclosure, Impressions, and Interpersonal Evaluations: Getting to Know One Another a Bit at a Time”.

The paper studied verbal versus non-verbal communication by getting 158 students to discuss their lives using remote communications – chatrooms – versus directly face-to-face.

The students were placed together in opposite sex pairs, and their pairings were all with an unknown partner.

The subsequent conversations were then analysed for disclosure of information using a range of techniques and they found that those students talking remotely via chatroom shared far more information than those in a face-to-face communication.

In the chatroom, higher levels intimate question-asking and self-disclosure occurred, with students doing far more probing and challenging chat than those who were talking face-to-face.

In fact, the questions and disclosure of the face-to-face conversations were far more peripheral discussions about the time of day and the weather, than those in the chatrooms were sexual preferences and behaviours were often the order of the day.

Tidwell and Walther concluded that the remote electronic communications encourages people to be more brazen and outwardly going, as it takes away their uncertainty-reducing behaviours – the way you look, feel, talk, behave and the way the other does. As a result, they skip the usual asking of peripheral questions and minor disclosures and go straight for direct, intimate questioning and self-disclosure.

These studies lead to the conclusion that if you want to target anyone today for fleecing, it is far easier to do remotely than by knocking on their door.

It is the reason why Nigerian 419 scams work, phishing and even the downloading of malware.

After all, if someone sends you a link that says: “Robert Pattinson / Keira Knightley filmed in the changing rooms naked”, how many people would not click?

And if you really want to find out how easy it is to socially engineer people into giving away information to a stranger, just try creating a fictional you in facebook or on email.

I should know as I just poked you … did you notice?


About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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