School of Informatics

Understanding privacy concerns

Social media users want and need more control over the visibility of their private profile information such as phone numbers in communication apps, according to a recent study.

The survey of 626 WhatsApp users in Saudi Arabia found that 83.9% of respondents had been contacted by a stranger through the application. While the app allows users to block such contact after it has happened, users wanted more ability to control their personal information to limit who can contact them.

WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging application which allows the creation of groups, sending of images, audio and video, and sharing of contacts’ details. Chat histories are recorded and visible to all parties.

The findings of the study will be presented at the 2016 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) Workshop on Usable Security in San Diego, California, 21 February 2016, by Kami Vaniea, Informatics, University of Edinburgh and Yasmeen Rashidi and L. Jean Camp of Indiana University.

Cultural differences

The researchers explain: “User privacy preferences and behaviours may vary depending on, for example, gender, culture, region or religion. Most cultural privacy research focuses on Western cultures, with minimal research done with Middle Eastern cultures.

“In this work, we are interested in how users of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia manage their privacy in an application that provides simplified coarse grain privacy controls to users. We selected WhatsApp because the application is very popular in many countries including Saudi Arabia and puts a strong emphasis on being simple and easy to use.”


“Managing privacy in mobile instant messaging is a challenge for designers and users alike. If too many options are provided, the privacy controls can become complex to understand and unwieldy to manipulate. Conversely, providing too few controls leaves users without the ability to adequately express their privacy preferences.

“Further complicating this, a new class of social networks has emerged where one person can add another without mutual consent (ie. Tumbler, Twitter, and WhatsApp).

“We found that Saudi users were aware of the privacy settings and use them especially to limit the visibility of when they were last active. Respondents wanted more control over their membership in groups and the resulting visibility of their private profile information such as phone numbers.”

The paper discusses the results in terms of prior privacy and interruptibility awareness literature.

Useful links

See the paper on Dr Vaniea’s website

Dr Vaniea’s School web page

NDSS Symposium

Usable security (USEC) workshops within NDSS