Visible to the public Distrust of Internet in Older Adults


One of the biggest challenges in solving computer security problems is attributing patterns to user behaviors that are associated with these problems. For a long time, computer security has been focused on the improvement of the mechanisms that keep data and machines secure from potential threats. That same amount of focus has not been afforded to the understanding of the human actions that sometimes exacerbate the vulnerabilities to themselves as well as to others in the context of computer security. At the University at Buffalo, we are trying to fill that gap through an inter--disciplinary collaboration to focus on smaller but highly vulnerable group of the human population - the older adults (above the age of 55).

In an interconnected world, human behavior not only puts the action--taker at a risk, but also could potentially expose other users connected to him/her at perhaps even a greater risk. Our own focus group and pilot studies have shown that social well-- being is a strong motivator for many in the baby boomer generation to adopt the Internet along with personal computers. They "go online" (including increasingly on Facebook) to keep in touch with their loved ones and to find new friends. Activity and Continuity theories in the field of gerontology have long established that as people get older, they try to take up new activities in life to cope with social disengagement and in order to improve their aging process.

In addition to this increased adoption, we are also seeing a rising tide of scams and vulnerabilities on the Internet, especially employing social engineering, targeting older adults. This phenomenon makes the focus on the behavioral side of an older user's computer security all the more important. What we have observed specifically through our preliminary surveys is that older adults who tend to age in a positive way have a tendency to trust strangers more. But at the same time, there exists a parallel reaction of distrust about certain online websites and entities (e.g. emails from strangers). Our initial conclusions from these findings are that aging process might have very little to do with the distrust they might have about the Internet. The rise in scams against them also tells us that majority of the older adults on the Internet are indeed too trustful of certain online entities that the rest of the population may not trust. We are thus trying to expand our studies to understand both trusting and distrusting beliefs that older adults have about the Internet in general. We have also found that traditional models that explain security behavior in young and middle--age groups of ICT users well, don't explain the same for older adults adequately. This has presented a unique opportunity to attempt to theorize the behavior of older adults for computer security in a new framework.

We strongly believe that attributes and the causal models we are exploring to identify the behavior that bear security ramifications for older adults, help in the foundation of explaining the science behind security--related behavior of ICT users in general.

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