Researchers from Penn State University in the USA have found that a person’s physical location and whether they are using a VPN affects how they behave online.
They have discovered that most people will be less willing to share private information online if they are logging on in a public place such as a café and if they are not connected to a VPN. Their research also determined that the appearance of a public wi-fi terms and conditions box also changes the way people behave online.
How the study worked
The research has been carried by S. Shyam Sundar, who is the James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects at Penn State alongside Maria Molina and Andrew Gambino, who are both doctoral candidates in mass communication.
They recruited participants for their study from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a globally distributed online workforce and tested their online behaviour in four different physical locations. Those locations were a coffee shop, a university, an Airbnb and home.
They also tested different connectivity scenarios including a Wi-Fi connection with a VPN link, a Wi-Fi connection with no VPN, a Wi-Fi connection with a terms and conditions pop-up, and one without.
In these different scenarios, they then asked a series of questions designed to test four different types of online activity; the disclosure of financial information, the disclosure of personal information, unethical behaviour, and ethical behaviour.
The results of their study show that people are inclined to display a type of behaviour known as ‘publicness heuristic’ just as much online as in the real world. Publicness heuristic is a type of mental shortcut that stops people from revealing private information in public.
The researchers found that those people who had a higher tendency to display ‘publicness heuristic’ in the real world also showed in online. They were more likely to consider a public Wi-Fi network, such as those found in a coffee shop or on public transport, to be insecure and therefore reveal less public information online.
How VPNs affect online behaviour
This is to the participant’s credit. Regular readers will be aware that we have long been banging the drum about the dangers of public Wi-Fi and the importance of using a VPN to stay safe when using these networks. The message, it seems, is starting to get through.
According to the Penn State research project, the scenario in which participants were least likely to reveal private and sensitive information was when they knew there was no VPN connection established.
In other words, their participants were fully aware that their private information would be safer if they were connected to a VPN. They are, of course, absolutely right and it is terrific that this message is starting to permeate deeper.
It could be argued that the participant pool only included people who worked online and were, therefore, more likely to be aware of these issues and use a VPN in their day-to-day lives, but nonetheless, any trend that shows the public associated VPNs with greater online privacy and security can only be a good thing.
The study was not 100% positive. It did find that participants considered an AirBnB Wi-Fi connection to be more secure than a coffee shop connection.
This could be the case if it changes passwords regularly, but if other people have access to the password or it isn’t secured by a password at all, the truth is that it is no more secure than any other public Wi-Fi network.
But overall, the message from these studies was that public awareness of issues like data privacy and online security are moving in the right direction.
Always use a VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi
The researchers made a few recommendations at the end of their study. These were primarily targeted at network designers and intended to help them make users aware of the security of their network.
These included adding cues such as “Warning: this is a public network” to public Wi-Fi networks. We would also recommend a cue saying, “We recommend using a VPN when connecting to this insecure public Wi-Fi network.”
That would be the most honest and straightforward message to tell people. Public Wi-Fi networks are insecure and VPNs do tackle the problem.
To find out which VPN is the best to use on public Wi-Fi networks, the best place to start is our comprehensive guide on Why you really should be using a VPN on Public Wi-Fi. In it, we address all the major security risks and explain why ExpressVPN is the best VPN to keep you safe.