RMIT Vietnam NewsDigital Privacy

Digital Privacy

Friday, November 2, 2012 - 17:03
Professional Communications lecturer Patrick Sharbaugh

Vietnam has very rapidly become a connected country in terms of internet use.

Around 34 percent of the country’s almost 90 million people are online regularly. Some estimates put the growth of internet usage at a staggering 12,000 percent since the year 2000.

This surge in online activity also means huge amounts of personal information is now circulating on the internet, but are concerns about how this information is safeguarded, collected and used also emerging?

The answer is complicated, both yes and no depending on the situation, according to research undertaken by Professional Communications lecturer Patrick Sharbaugh, who recently presented his paper ‘The Wisdom of the Crowd: Understanding Online Personal Privacy in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ at conferences in Singapore, Czech Republic and the United States.

Sharbaugh found attitudes in Vietnam differed markedly from accepted ideas in Western cultures about how their personal information was accessed online. In Vietnam, the onus for safeguarding privacy was seen very much as an individual’s responsibility, rather than the responsibility of organisations, internet service providers or the authorities.

“The main concern was the possibility of ‘dangerous individuals’ who might try to use their personal information to hurt them, either financially or through damage to their reputation,” Sharbaugh says. “The notion of personal privacy is not seen as a fundamental right, as it is in the West.”

In contrast, there was little to no concern over the tracking of internet habits by organisations like governments or marketers. Most participants in the study’s focus groups and online interactive discussions had little idea what a browser cookie was or what purpose it would serve. Even then, most saw it as largely benign, or in some instances even helpful.

Alongside these forums, the study also asked how concerned people were about personal privacy when accessing the internet as part of a random national phone survey of 3405 respondents. Only nine percent said they were strongly concerned, while more than half indicated they were either not really or not at all concerned about their privacy online. This is significant, Sharbaugh says, because it is almost the exact opposite of what similar surveys reveal about attitudes towards privacy in Australia, Europe and the United States.

“There is a tendency [in Vietnam] to conflate privacy with security,” Sharbaugh says. As such, the study found a common belief among young Vietnamese internet users that the key to ensuring privacy online was strong passwords and tightly guarded login information to protect things like bank account details.

Why then do these attitudes prevail? While there has been little research done on the topic in Asia, and Vietnam particularly, Sharbaugh believes much of it has to do with the traditional Confucian values that are so much a part of Vietnamese culture. “Communal groups are more valued than the individual, so individual information does not have the same importance and people are more accustomed to sharing.”

As to why the Vietnamese conception of online privacy seems to differ so much from those elsewhere, Sharbaugh points out that answering that question is a subject for future research. He suspects it has to do not only with the traditional Confucian values that are so much a part of Vietnamese culture but also with Vietnam’s recent emergence into a free market economy and the lack of existing regulations. Apart from the why, Sharbaugh believes these differences matter.

“Netizens in Vietnam are using globally popular Internet platforms and tools whose privacy controls and policies are all based upon very Western conceptions of privacy. It seems like the Googles of the world should care about that.”