Unpacking “Privacy” for a Networked World – Alana Bonfiglio 10/26

In Unpacking “Privacy” for a Networked World, Leysia Palen and Paul Dourish argue that privacy is a dynamic (changing) process similar to its definition by social psychologist Irwin Altman even before modern technology was created.

According to Palen and Dourish, HCI researchers have acknowledged the implications of technology on privacy for quite some time, but as new technologies are introduced and implemented into daily life, new possibilities for information access are created which also creates possibilities for privacy management. However, the authors write that “despite broad concern, there have been few analytic or systematic attempts to help us better understand the relationship between privacy and technology.” In other words, it seems that privacy concerns are widespread and growing, but not thoroughly understood or studied. Palen and Dourish write that many people associate privacy issues with “Big Brother” concerns such as surveillance and personal identity theft; people’s everyday worries include minimizing embarrassment, protecting turf (territoriality) and staying in control of one’s time.

However, according to the authors, if we’re going to understand privacy, we need to look at Altman’s definition, which conceptualizes privacy as “a boundary regulation process where people optimize their accessibility along a spectrum of “openness” and “closedness” depending on context.” Unlike the fundamentals of the physical world to provide privacy, like people far away being unable to hear us or people not being able to see through our doors, privacy in a digital world involves the monitoring of boundaries.  

Palen and Dourish write that we need to look at the disclosure, identity and temporality boundaries. Disclosure boundaries are where decisions are made about what information might be disclosed under what circumstances. We make these decisions everyday with the stickers on our laptops, clothing choices and social media posts. According to the authors, a certain amount of disclosure is necessary to ensure privacy. The identity boundaries are between oneself and others. This involves social and professional affiliations that are often overlooked in the individualistic perspective. For example, how certain companies restrict the behavior of their employees. Temporality boundaries are associated with time. In other words, the actions of the past influence those of the present. “Because future uses of information cannot always be controlled, the nature or format of information might instead be governed,” wrote the authors. These three “genres of disclosure” work together to give way to the fluidity of privacy management. The authors examine case studies such as the family intercom and shared calendars to contextualize the genres of disclosure in the world of modern technology.

I find this perspective on privacy very interesting. I would never have thought about modern technology privacy in simplistic, un-technological terms. When it was explained this way I began to think less about privacy in terms of what corporations are doing with our data and began to understand the basic questions of privacy around disclosure, identity and temporality.

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