5 Dec 2017

The unexplored costs of our online persona

Rory writes*

A few weeks ago as I attempted to access my profile on a well-known social media site I was blocked from doing so. On closer inspection it appeared that someone, somewhere had gained access to my account, changed my password, removed certain security steps I had arranged, and was only shut out after about 20 minutes of unrestricted access to my online persona. Whilst this experience may be common it prompted me to think of how I interact and use my online environment, and the effect an experience such as this has this.

Nowadays a reliance can be built around use of online accounts, through the use of email, social media and online banking. It's not difficult to see that we save a huge amount of time by being connected to the web in this way, we save money through the use of online banking, and we enrich our social lives through the use of social media (I'm aware this final point is arguable however for simplicity I'll accept its validity). However all of these savings and benefits must have a cost. In this case one of the costs is our security, by making these webs of reliance over various online accounts and personas we are able to interact with our online environment, on the other hand we can simultaneously expose ourselves to the risk of identity theft.

After an attack or theft of one's online identity, there are two ways in which one can approach interacting online, either keep using it the way they have, aware of this danger, or alter their behaviour to reduce this risk. There are obvious ways in which this can be quantified, for example the time costs of having to manage bank accounts in person in branch, or perhaps the added financial cost. Additionally there are less easily quantifiable social costs in removing oneself from a social media environment which seems to have a monopoly on arranging any social occasion. It's not for me to say which course of action is most prudent, however it is possible to see there is a relationship between an individuals' utility and their exposure to risk. Whilst I can gain much from fully using my online environment, I lose much security in this process. Alternatively I can sacrifice my time and social life in favour of peace of mind, another impossible to quantify factor.

Or is it? This factor could possibly be quantified if I ask myself; how much would I pay for a sort of insurance which assures me that my online environment will not be hijacked? Or alternatively how much would I have to be paid to put myself in this risky situation? In essence the answer to both of these questions would be more or less the same as the utility loss of altering my behaviour to not use social media, email, and online banking.

Bottom Line: There are hidden costs to interacting with our online environment, attacks on t our online identity simply make these costs obvious. We may think we pay for the ease of the online world through ads or through data-mining, but we may also pay with our security and peace of mind.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)