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“ My data just goes everywhere : ” User mental models of the internet and implications for privacy and security

Many people use the Internet every day yet know little about how it really works. Prior literature diverges on how people’s Internet knowledge affects their privacy and security decisions. We undertook a qualitative study to understand what people do and do not know about the Internet and how that knowledge affects their responses to privacy and security risks. Lay people, as compared to those with computer science or related backgrounds, had simpler mental models that omitted Internet levels, organizations, and entities. People with more articulated technical models perceived more privacy threats, possibly driven by their more accurate understanding of where specific risks could occur in the network. Despite these differences, we did not find a direct relationship between people’s technical background and the actions they took to control their privacy or increase their security online. Consistent with other work on user knowledge and experience, our study suggests a greater emphasis on policies and systems that protect privacy and security without relying too much on users’ security practices.

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