Wanting to offer assistance to students while also promoting institutional research into the area of information privacy, the university held an information privacy panel discussion Thursday in the Commonwealth Ballroom B at Squires Student Center.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and France Bélanger, University Distinguished Professor in the Pamplin College of Business who has been researching information privacy for more than two decades, co-hosted the event. Approximately 100 students and faculty members attended, with numerous others watching a livestream.

The event served to bring attention to a topic gaining more and more attention in light of the advancement of emerging technologies and the prevalent use of social media by today’s society.

“What's different today is the rise of technologies and how fast the technologies are really showing up all the time,” Bélanger said. “There’s always a new app, and so with the rise of technologies, we also have growing privacy concerns. And interestingly enough, I did research that I started 20 years ago when e-commerce was starting, and some of the same issues we had 20 years ago are still there today.”

The event focused on several areas related to information privacy, including the ease in which information gets collected and the importance of an individual’s knowing safeguards and how to use them.

An intriguing part of the panel discussion came when two students — Julia Kemly, who is pursuing a degree in marketing, and Mark Ebner, an aerospace engineering major — agreed to have their online activity researched prior to the event. They then learned the results of that search, and those results turned out to be eye-opening.

Nicknames, relatives, hobbies, addresses, photos of their homes, political affiliations, financial information, and social media accounts were just a few of the things that came up in the search.

“I am surprised,” Kemly said. “I didn’t know a lot of that information was available from a simple search. And even with having my social media accounts private, it’s not very private. The amount of information is crazy.”

“It’s a lot of information,” Ebner agreed. “I wish it was harder to find, but looking at this packet [of information from the search], it doesn’t like it was too hard to find everything about me.”

In addition, the panel discussion included a group of faculty members talking about their research and expertise on privacy marketplace, social media privacy, and popular technologies used by students. Faculty members included Megan Duncan, assistant professor in the School of Communication; Wenjing Lou, the W.C. English Endowed Professor of computer science; and Donna Wertalik, professor of practice in marketing and director of marketing strategy and analytics in the Pamplin College of Business.

A big topic of discussion centered on why companies collect an individual’s personal information. In short, companies are having to become more creative to market their products to the public, and that requires being in the same spaces where consumers go.

Members of the panel are shown discussing different topics.
Members of the panel included - from left - Wenjing Lou, Donna Wertalik, President Tim Sands, France Bélanger, and Megan Duncan, each of whom offered suggestions on what people could do to protect their information online.

“Many of us in this room will not relate to this, but some of us will,” Wertalik said. “Back in the day, when there were only three channels — ABC, CBS, and NBC — if a marketer brand wanted to come and target or create awareness about a message, it was simply putting it on TV for broad awareness. Those days are gone. Now, the landscape of media and fragmentation is immense.

“Consumers on average receive about 5,000 messages a day, whether it's subliminally or purposely. Considering that, a marketer’s job is becoming much harder. How do we deliver value? So companies have started to collect data, and … that allows us to create these clusters and these profiles to determine when I’m going to send you a message because it's relevant and timely. So for companies, social listening is tremendously important because that all of a sudden breaks through the clutter.”

The panel also discussed TikTok, a widely popular and controversial social media platform owned by a Chinese company that has state governments and the federal government investigating it because of its information collection practices.

From the beginning, TikTok set out to monetize a person’s information.

“Every single piece of information, and whether they were 7 or 8 or 13 years old, they filled it all out because they wanted the customization in terms of islands and things with my best friends, the latest makeup trends, whatever it may be, because it was valuable to them,” Wertalik said. “And that is how the targeting has really occurred.”

Each member of the panel offered tips on how to help protect oneself. Nearly all of these applications and platforms have settings that enable a person to prevent personal information from being shared. Unfortunately, few take the time to go through those settings and restrict that information.

“On TikTok, there’s a restricted mode,” Wertalik said. “There's a setting where you do not have to connect to your friends. There are other settings in terms of the ads that you see, the information provided about you and what people can provide about you. All of that is in the settings, but we don’t take the time. We're a time-poor society. We're running through life — and the hackers are grabbing every moment that we're sharing online.”

Duncan offered an interesting tip. As governments become more involved, she encouraged the audience to vote for the politicians interested in protecting consumer interests.

“My favorite tip for every situation in life is to vote,” she said. “But it's important here, too, because both at the state and the federal level, those are the people who are making the decisions about whether to be banned in the U.S. Those are the people who are making the decisions about what regulations the social media companies have to follow to keep your data safe — and those are the bodies that have made significant differences.”

So can people in today’s society expect any semblance of privacy when it comes to personal information? Yes, Bélanger said.

“It’s still possible,” she said. “But it's about making informed choices and it’s about educating oneself.

“It's possible to have privacy, but we have to make those choices. The good news is there are more and more technologies that have privacy designed or will be designed into the technologies. … The other good news is we have a lot of research going on at Virginia Tech about information privacy that can help.”

At Virginia Tech, approximately eight different units are conducting research in the area of information privacy, and many faculty members are conducting direct research on the topic. As Wertalik pointed, this is part of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim mission to help others.

“You really do need to be vigilant, educated, and also a brand advocate and talk to other people about this,” she said. “That’s how the future is going to change — by us taking control today.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson