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Investigating privacy issues and human behaviour in the Age of Information

People from all backgrounds and age groups are willingly – as well as unknowingly – sharing personal data online, behaviour that has serious consequences for governments and businesses attempting to adopt new identity management practices and technologies as well as tackle cybercrime. Research conducted at Northumbria’s Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab is seeking to understand this information sharing paradox, and its work on people’s perceptions of trust, privacy and security is influencing policy at the highest level.

Led by Professor Lynne Coventry, the PaCT Lab is one of only a few human-computer interaction research and training facilities based within a university psychology department. Predominantly consisting of psychologists, the PaCT team employs a multidisciplinary approach to its work through numerous high-level collaborative projects that broadly focus on privacy, security, trust and behaviour change – projects that have received major grants from both government and industry, facilitated debate and informed UK and EU policy.

One such project is IMPRINTS (Identity Management: Public Responses to Identity Technologies and Service), conducted with the Universities of Loughborough, Dundee and Essex. Led by Northumbria’s Professor Pam Briggs and Dr Lisa Thomas, the research sought to understand how members of the public felt about certain identity management systems, such as smart technologies or biometric authentication; the types of information users felt comfortable, uncomfortable and shouldn’t be sharing; and the types of systems users trusted to hold and exchange sensitive personal information. The IMRINTS findings contributed to the development of UK policy on the responsible use of data and data protection, and are freely available online.

Whereas IMPRINTS considers the types of identity management systems people want, ChAISe (Choice Architecture for Information Security) is an example of a project that seeks to address the types of design nudges that can be incorporated into systems to help people protect their digital identities and data. Operating within EPSRC and GCHQ’s prestigious Research Institute in the Science of Cyber Security, ChAISe has resulted in a number of published papers as well as the design of tools aimed at helping people better manage their cybersecurity – the psychology aspects of which were steered by Prof Briggs and Prof Coventry.  

Currently, the PaCT Lab is working with a large retailer to offer consumers advice on how to protect their identities and remain secure online when they buy technologies that have the potential to leak sensitive personal information, a project among many of PaCT wide ranging studies that demonstrate its vast impact on a national and international level – and its influence on the users themselves, identity management system designers and decision makers.

Indeed, Prof Briggs and Prof Coventry have produced numerous reports advising the UK Government Office for Science on topics ranging from the Internet of Things to the future of identity management and contributed to the Scientific Opinion on Cybersecurity in the European Digital Single Market – a report of the High Level Group of Scientific Advisors to the European Commission.


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