What does privacy mean?

From Beyond Google, 2015, Dalhousie University. In Beyond Google, a third year information management course, we explored how data and information is stored, social and mobile. We started the course talking about media as an extension of the self and ended it with a look at protecting ourselves from privacy infringements.

“Private” is, as most people will define it, the opposite of “public.” Something that is private is often personal, it is for me and not for you, it is information I’ve put limits on. Though privacy is a thing we hear about on a daily basis and all seem to know about intuitively, it is not a simple concept.

When we say we want to maintain our privacy what we are really saying is we want to control information about us and about what we do. More precisely, we want to control the audience of that information. We don’t want everyone to know our health records, we want our doctor to know and our close family to know, but not the guy sitting beside us on the bus.

How much we value other people not knowing things about us is a social norm. What I mean here is that in different cultures and at different points in time people’s desire for privacy is varied. Your expectation for how much control you get over information about you and what you do is socially constructed.

You may remember Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook infamously claiming privacy is dead – the social norm no longer exists. This normative view of privacy is where he was coming from, since people are happy to give up control of their personal information now. That is what online social networking sites do. This is, of course, a huge over simplification.

While people do give up a lot of personal information online, they still don’t want the stranger next to them on the bus to know about their health issues. Even information people are willing to relinquish control over on Facebook is not necessarily information they want to have spread via other channels of communication. For example, you may be fine posting a crazy St. Patty’s day photo on Facebook but it is not exactly the ideal conversation starter around the board table at work. So privacy, as a social norm does persist.

Zuckerberg’s comments about privacy being dead are in line with a stream of thinking that says youth in particular do not know or are unaware of privacy risks online. The assumption is that since youth are regular users of social media and mobile apps which heavily rely on personal data, they do not care about their privacy. In reality, however, research has shown that youth are actually more likely than their older counterparts to check or change their privacy settings (among others, Grant Blank, Gillian Bolsover and I have argued this).

Helen Nissenbaum, a well known scholar and privacy expert, talks about privacy in context. Her work argues for that view of privacy where what we really want is to control when and where our information is shared with others. Privacy infringements can be thought of as use and sharing of information in improper settings or for unintended purposes. So, if I post my address to a closed Facebook event because I am inviting friends over and then that address is given to a company who starts sending me junk mail, that is probably going to feel like violation of privacy to me.

A lot of people talking about privacy and the Internet focus on privacy in terms of controlling how much information advertisers and marketers get or how much access governments have to citizens’ online histories. But, privacy is also more personal, it is also what the people you talk to everyday have or do not have access to.

To that point, Marwick and boyd do an excellent job of considering the implications of online spaces and privacy in context in their work on context collapse. Thinking about how privacy is contextual — In one context you are happy to share information about your new romantic interest, for example chatting with friends. In another context you would not want that information shared, say, at a family dinner where nosey relatives can all have their say. The problem is many online social networking sites cause those two contexts (and others) to overlap or collapse. Mom, uncle Bob, your childhood bff and former boss are all on Facebook. Mitigating context collapse is an issue of maintaining privacy.

And so, for a range of reasons, I want to be able to control the audience and the context. That is privacy.


One thought on “What does privacy mean?

  1. Darragh McCurragh says:

    Privacy issues will come back to haunt the current generations not many years from now. Having been involved in the data privacy wars from the 1970s onwards where lawyers and activists fought tooth and nail to get privacy protection laws passed and … observed, I am totally surprised at the nonchalance most people, mostly younger, but older too, are now dealing with their own personal data. At the time (early to late 1970s the issue was not so much what would persist – most privacy leaks would eventually literally “burn”, i.e. be on paper and vanish eventually. But nowadays ALL information that was once “published” (this includes firewalled sections of social networks too! – and potentially includes all cloud services as the information will remain there in some backup tapes “for ever”) will never be eradicated. And he who publishes under pseudonym might tomorrow be exposed with his real name. And he who wants to run for CEO or president or prime minister or mayor might tomorrow find a photograph of him crawling on all fours drunk posted by a political opponent – a thing that he might have posted -proudly- thirty years ago and then “forgotten”. But the Internet forgets not – AND will soon be able to identify people by their features even through all their ages!

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