‘Wired’ Senior Citizens and Online Information Privacy

Sangmi Chai and H. R. Rao


Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are an important support system enabling elderly people to enhance their knowledge, business transactions, and social connections (Selwyn et al. 2003, Selwyn 2004). Senior citizens are the fastest growing demographic group of online users, yet also amongst the most vulnerable. There are growing concerns with regard to information privacy and the risks of the aging population in this regard in the UK and Europe (Comyn et al. 2006, Social Exclusion Unit 2005).

In the Unites States, according to the Pew Internet American Life Project (2004), 22% of Americans 65 and older used the Internet in 2004, which went up from 15% in 2000. In 2006, 34% of Americans age 65 and older went online (Pew Internet Data memo 2006). “Wired” seniors use the Internet in order to do various activities: 66% looked for health or medical information; 66% conducted product research on the Internet; 60% visited Government websites; 47% participated in online shopping; 41% used the Internet for travel reservations; and 20% used Internet banking.

Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to privacy attacks. First, they tend to trust others because many grew up in a protected and more honest environment. Secondly, most seniors do not spend as much time on the Internet as younger consumers (“grey digital divide”) and are not as knowledgeable about Internet fraud (Millward 2003). For example, according to the testimony of David Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), at the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging (http://aging.senate.gov/hearing_detail.cfm? id=271356&), the senior population makes appealing targets, and should be particularly careful of phishing attacks, because they potentially have the most to lose.

Given the significance and vulnerability of this demographic group, research on information privacy and security of “wired” seniors is paramount, yet, such research is quite limited. Most research regarding cybersecurity and information privacy is with respect to younger generations. According to prior research in technology adoption, elderly people experience more stress when they are faced with adopting new technology than younger people (Elder et al. 1987; Zeffane and Cheeks 1993). Elderly Internet users express less Internet self-efficacy and feel nervous when they adopt the Internet (Lam and Lee 2006, Selwyn et al. 2003). In the context of online privacy protection, a survey shows that elderly Internet users exercise less precaution in terms of their information security and privacy behaviors (The Pew Internet American Life Project 2006). They show fewer tendencies to use different web browsers, to stop downloading suspicious files, and to visit certain websites because of information security fears, than younger users. Another report from the Pew study pointed out that elderly Internet users usually are less aware of the existence of spyware so that fewer “wired” seniors take action to avoid risks from harmful spyware (http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/160/report _display.asp).

Yet, other than the Pew studies, this subset of the community has hardly been researched in the context of cybersecurity. As the first step in this direction, we propose to examine behaviors and attitudes of senior Internet users regarding online privacy in cyberspace. The proposed study will focus on “wired” senior citizens because existing technical solutions and posted privacy polices on websites may not be capable of being applied to such seniors who cannot be fast adopters of technology compared to younger groups, resulting in their becoming more exposed to various online privacy threats. The main distinctive issue that will be explored in this study is :

  • What are the external and internal factors including socio-technical aspects affecting senior citizens’ online privacy behavior?

The research proposes to utilize behavioral decision making theory (Edward 1961, Simon 1959), social cognitive theory (Bandura 1986), trust-risk framework (Mcknight et al. 1998), and socio-technical system theory (Trist et al. 1963, Mumford 2000, Mumford 1996, Mumford 1995) in the study of demographic, socio-economic, and psychological/behavioral factors to understand elderly online users’ Internet usage behavior and online privacy awareness. Based on factors we figure out from prior literature, we will propose theoretical framework to understand older Internet users’ perception, attitude and behavior in the relationship between collection and dissemination of data, technology, the public expectation of privacy, and the legal issues surrounding them in cyberspace.


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