A matter of trust

The Spanish edition of Marie Claire contacted me about an article that one of its journalists, Verónica Marín, was writing called “La sociedad de la confianza” (“The trust society”, pdf in Spanish) which in part discusses why more and more of us are prepared to use applications for car sharing, for example, whereby we are prepared to travel with somebody we have never met and about whose driving skills we have no idea.

Similarly, why should we trust somebody else’s hotel or restaurant recommendation, or decide to stay in a stranger’s apartment, or even go out on a date with a complete unknown? In part, because of the ratings systems that websites use.

We all know that if something seems too good to be true, then it usually is too good to be true. Leaving aside promises of easy money in return for doing nothing, the workings of some platforms provides a fascinating insight into our capacity for trust; at the same time, we tell ourselves that websites set up solely to rip people off are not going to last very long.

In the final analysis, the question comes down to numbers and probabilities: a website with a high number of positive ratings may well have some dissatisfied customers hidden away, but they are probably a minority. At the same time, the worldwide web is no different in many aspects to the real world in terms of the number of people looking to rip us off.

Below, the full text of Marie Claire’s questions, and my answers:

Q. It’s something of a paradox that in a society obsessed with safety and security that we’re prepared to trust what other people say on the internet about hotels, or restaurants, or whatever. Why do you think that is?

A. Three main reasons: sincerity, the law of averages, and experience. In the first case, we put ourselves in the position of the people that have written those opinions, and we believe that they are sincerely interested in making the system work for everybody’s benefit.

Secondly, a restaurant or hotel that posts bogus positive reviews will eventually be found out. People who criticize ratings sites on the basis that “all reviews are false” can only do so because they have never used one, or because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Finally, experience: these systems have been around for long enough now for most of us to have tried them out, and we know that the good reviews of this hotel or that restaurant were because the places in question were good, and that the reason for the negative reviews was because the places in question were no good.

Q. The Airbnb site’s slogan is “our home is your home”. Yet we refuse to talk to strangers in the street and avert our gaze on the bus, but we’re prepared to go and sit on somebody else’s sofa. It’s a bit strange wouldn’t you say?

A. Again, I would say this is about sincerity. We tend to believe in sustainable systems. We don’t believe that somebody has built up a good reputation over time simply so they can eventually turn round to rip us off when we go to their house. Why would they go to so much trouble, even to the extent of leaving you a few cold drinks in the fridge. Similarly, if you have established some kind of relationship, albeit through a few emails, that person is more likely to look after your home. These systems work because they are based on trust and common sense. Something can always go wrong, but such cases are rare, surprisingly or not.

Q. The recent spate of thefts of photographs of celebrities raises the question as to just how easy it is to hack into our mails or cloud storage…

A. If somebody is determined to get into a system, it doesn’t matter how secure that system might be. In the case of emails and the cloud, we’re talking about systems that are relatively new, and most of us don’t have much idea about how they work. It is hard to avoid these things happening; all we can do is to take the necessary precautions to reduce the risk we expose ourselves to.

Q. What is the most dangerous or least secure thing we can do on the internet?

A. The internet is as safe or unsafe as the real world. There are safe places in the world, and unsafe places, where we run risks. If something in the real world seems too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true. It’s just that we have more experience of the real world than the internet, so we tend to think that the internet is unsafe, but it isn’t, or at least it isn’t any less safe than the real world. There are risky things on the internet, usually associated with what we might call instant gratification: pornography, gambling, etc. What we need to do is use our common sense. If you get an email offering you something and you click on the link without thinking what might be behind it, we are exposing ourselves to risk. Similarly, we shouldn’t use the same password on all the sites we use.

Q. We’d like to give our readers some advice on the precautions they should take when using the internet. Can you give us some suggestions to help protect themselves on the following:

  1. Shopping: only buy from well-known sites, using encrypted pages that only we can access, rather than through a link. Use your credit card only when we know the terms and conditions, especially when bearing in mind the responsibility we assume in case of fraud.
  2. Exchanging accommodation: check the rating of the other person, and try to get to know them beforehand, but without hassling them. Making a personal connection, good chemistry, and showing that you are prepared to go the extra mile are the best ways to establish a good reputation and to reduce risks.
  3. Couchsurfing: again, reputation is crucial: look for people who have done this before; they are less likely to expose themselves to risk.
  4. Car sharing: again, reputation, and in general, anything that can help reduce risk and make us feel more confident in the person we’re going to be driving with. People who have earned good evaluations, as well as providing information about their vehicle, etc, tend to be the logical choices.
  5. Dating: there are few rules when it comes to meeting people, and the system you are using will have its own guidelines. Again, use your common sense and try to find people you have something in common with.
  6. Exchanging erotic photos or videos: again, common sense: only do this with people that you have a good relationship with and that you trust, and by using systems that provide some security.

Q. Are there places on the internet where we can feel safe?

A. Overall, the internet is safe, but if you feel that it is filled with rip off merchants or is unsafe, then don’t use it. Apply the same rules that you would in the real world.

Q. What is your opinion of the deep web?

A. The deep web is the logical response to an internet where people feel that they are being watched, it is a response to control. You can find just about anything on the deep web, from criminal activities to activism and resistance to dictatorial regimes that don’t respect human rights. We should be wary of having preconceptions about the deep web, because it covers a wide variety of activities.

Q. Despite the repeated scandals, we continue to put our information on it. Are we too trusting? Why don’t we learn?

A. The internet is a system where most users have little experience, and it seems to take time before we apply common sense. But add to that the fact that the system itself is constantly changing, I think it is easy to understand why people with little experience of it feel disorientated. The answer is not to run away from the internet, but to develop our common sense through judicious use.

Q. What role would you say the social networks play in how secure we feel on the internet?

A. The social networks have gotten us used to closed systems where security is managed by the network, and where other people we know are also present. On the one hand, you tend to perceive security when you see a company that supposedly looks after our security, and on the other, you tend to feel secure when you see other people using it. But any real feeling of security should be based on our own experience.

(En español, aquí)